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Football Beyond Borders: How Clubs Expand to New Markets



The era of E-commerce marches on and has been keeping a steady growth. Moreover, with online retail set to be the leading consumer channel around the globe by 2021, it begs to wonder: can the football supporter experience be sold across digital platforms, like a pair of shoes? Can football clubs rally groups of supporters worldwide, even though they have a geographical disadvantage, as opposed to the born-and-raised fan?


Surely the top clubs in Europe would quickly reply with a simple ‘yes’.  There are many examples of attempts to spread and settle a brand outside of its native borders. With so many potential willing fans-to-be across all continents, undoubtedly there must be a way to seduce people into following a league, buying a club’s kit, consuming a footballing concept and culture.


Netflix’s ‘Sunderland Til I Die’, for instance, has reflected into Sunderland AFC - according to the club's owner - getting an influx of US-based supporters. Manchester City’s model, of establishing clubs under one multinational group across the world has also benefited the club greatly, as the supporters of Girona, Melbourne City, New York City, are more prone to be interested in the main club in the venture. The opposite also occurs, with Man City supporters being intrigued by their satellite clubs and how they've been performing. Ajax’s venture in South Africa, where there is Dutch presence, led to the creation of Ajax Cape Town back in the ’90s.  La Liga looking to host Spanish First Division matches in the United States. The reality nowadays is that there are possibilities of exploring aside from your local community. A league, a club, a competition, can be of interest to a person anywhere on the planet.


With English being the most widespread language in the world (1.121 Billion speakers), United Kingdom football clubs, and the Premier League, kick off with an advantage. With these numbers alone, it is justified that every club with goals of gathering attention from broad audiences should be communicating in English. However, it shouldn’t be forgotten that more than a billion speak Chinese as well; over half a billion have Spanish as their first language; a quarter of a billion French and Portuguese. As food for thought, if every organisation had staff that were to speak and reach out to potential supporters in these five languages, you could be reaching half of the world’s population, with hardly any cost involved. 


Some European clubs have already started to develop social media in multiple languages. An easy and quite effective start. Not everyone can or knows how to speak English, but several of the non-English speakers might be interested in learning about what happens on a cold Saturday afternoon in Huddersfield.


The Asian and the North American markets are usually sought out as these are considered rich regions, where the population has a financial advantage to Africa and Latin America. However, the latter are two continents deeply passionate about football. Even though the purchasing power of these populations are not as high as China and the USA, they will most likely become consumers if offered the possibility and if the connection is made with them. 


The Old New Market

An excellent example of the untapped Latin American market comes from Brazil, a country that is often associated as a synonym to football. Research from 2015 suggests that 64% of Brazilians follow European clubs. It should also be noted that the UEFA Champions League is the second most watched football competition in the continental country, just behind the Copa Libertadores. The Bundesliga has recently used Ze Roberto, former Brazil and Bayern München player, in a campaign to rally the interest of the locals for the German first tier.


The global entertainment and media outlook 2014-2018 put together by PriceWaterhouseCoopers shows that entertainment and media revenues in Brazil are growing twice as fast as the worldwide average. Furthermore, the country represents 42.6% of the overall spending in the industry across Latin America. The local population currently has access to a wide variety of European Competitions, as listed below:

    La Liga


    Premier League and the Championship


    Liga Nos

    Serie A

    Ligue 1

    UEFA Champions League

    UEFA Europa League



All these tournaments are within grasp of the local population. Therefore, clubs and the leagues have a good starting base to reach out to a pool of over 200 million people. Some clubs are already looking into the South American footballing powerhouse. Paris Saint-Germain, having Neymar as a poster boy to tap into his home country, organised a competition with football schools that would bring 700 young ones to play under the PSG brand. Not accidentally, PSG is a club that has been benefitting from an increased interest within the South American market. Noticeably, the costly transfer of Neymar helps, but the presence of the Parisian club in Brazil started long ago, with players like Rai and Ronaldinho, even before the popularisation of the internet in South America.


It should be noted that local tournaments around Latin America lack concerning branding, collective quality and appeal – all the main players end up transferring to Europe at a rather young age, terrible pitch conditions, among other issues. Competitive balance is present, but it is acknowledged that the local competitions are below the standard set by UEFA based ones. There seems to be a need to connect to “something greater”, and, with globalisation and the evolution of European competitions, the European product could be exactly what the locals are interested in being a part of.


Focusing on the Far East

Thousands of miles away, in Asia, the Chinese Government has a plan to build a US$ 813 billion sports industry by 2025. Motivated by this, and with major Asian companies starting to invest in global football, this seemed to be the logical next step into brand development for the world’s biggest clubs. Hiring players from these countries, to develop a connection with the population, has always seemed to work. However, signing just for the sake of signing, wouldn’t reflect well with the locals. Communities want to be represented. So when Shinji Kagawa plays for Dortmund, there is more likely to have an increased interest within the whole continent, mainly from Japan. It wasn't by odd chance that Dortmund was the first club to set up an office on the continent. A club that could benefit significantly from having an Asian star player amidst its ranks is FC Espanyol. The 'other club from Barcelona' signed Wu Lei from Shanghai SIPG and the club immediately experienced an increase in 64% of following on its page on Weibo, a Chinese Social Media. Moreover, within the first 48 hours after the announcement of the Chinese goalscorer, the club sold over 1,600 jerseys with 'Wu Lei' on their back. 


For obvious reasons, it is more accessible for far fan bases to relate to your club or league if they see one of their community being part of it, as it would be for Espanyol, Wu Lei, and Chinese audiences. Therefore, if you can afford to sign a player from the country you are aiming to interact with, the odds are in your favour.  However, there is no need to rely on high-costing transfers and odd-chance to increase your popularity abroad. The willingness to reach out is enough to be the start of something great.


In truth, with globalisation and the lack of online borders, football clubs stopped being a portrayal of a local community. They now seem to be a representation of ideas and values that anyone can relate. Although the political trend within countries would suggest the opposite, when it comes to sports, globalisation has bulldozed walls, geographical boundaries, and prejudice, interconnecting institutions and people who share a sporting ideology.


This article was written by Bruno Pantaleoni of SBI's marketing team. For more information you can contact him directly at bruno.pantaleoni@sbibarcelona.com.


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