Asean Football Federation Hopes Local Money Can Fuel Ambitious League

By Patrick Johnson 18 April 2013

SINGAPORE—As Southeast Asian money floods into English football while local leagues are left to rot, the proposed Asean Super League (ASL) might just offer those investors a viable alternative and put a stop to the financial drain from the region.

The Asean Football Federation (AFF) told Reuters on Tuesday that their new tournament would start in February 2015 and feature eight franchises initially with no promotion or relegation.

The plan is to eventually increase that number to 16 teams with all 11 members of the federation taking part in a product the body hopes will enable the region to realize its true potential.

The AFF said discussions were ongoing but they were keen to reassure that the new league would not kill off domestic competitions in the region, many of which are already struggling with investment lacking.

The blanket coverage of the English Premier League means more people in Singapore stay up to watch the Manchester derby between City and United at 3 am local time then pay S$5 ($4.05) to attend an S.League match.

One of the 12 clubs in this year’s league, Balestier Khalsa, even went door-to-door to drum up support for this season, with their exploits going viral as their commendable initiative was mocked.

In Indonesia, supporter passion is there but stifled by mismanagement with clubs in perilous financial states as a two-year power struggle continues to rip apart the domestic game.

FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) have had little joy in resolving the issues, with Paraguayan striker Diego Mendieta paying the ultimate price when he died of a treatable disease after going months unpaid, caught in the middle of the rival factions power struggle.

In Vietnam, it is still unclear when the 2013 V.League season will start after months of delays because of financial issues, while the Philippines is slowly professionalizing after years of neglect.

While all these leagues suffer in a region which is more famous for its contribution to match-fixing than achievements on the field, Southeast Asian businessmen follow the fans and plough their money into England.

Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners were celebrating on Tuesday as their Welsh club finally gained promotion to the lucrative English Premier League.

They could swap places with another Malaysian-owned club, with Tony Fernandes’ Queens Park Rangers in dire relegation trouble, while another struggling side, Aston Villa, are sponsored by Malaysian gaming and plantation group Genting.

Fan Loyalty

Elsewhere in England’s second tier, three times League Cup winners and promotion chasing Leicester City are run by Thailand’s King Power International.

Last year, Singaporean businessmen Bill Ng came close to buying Scottish club Glasgow Rangers, while compatriot Peter Lim was in advanced talks about purchasing English giants Liverpool in 2010.

Asian money men also own Manchester City, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Blackburn Rovers and Birmingham City with the Premier League receiving hefty sums from television networks in Asia to air matches for fans who cannot get enough football.

But simply mimicking the English Premier League model at home has struggled to bear fruit for the majority of the member associations in Asean leading to the AFF’s bold, ambitious and brave plans to join forces.

“The challenge for the organizers and backers of the league is to develop a product that resonates in this market,” sports rights expert James Scholefield told Reuters.

“The fans need to have a genuine affiliation and loyalty that takes them off their sofas and into stadia to watch games.

“Without this level of engagement, I don’t see why savvy, sophisticated sponsors and marketers will be rushing to invest in a property that doesn’t ‘speak’ to mass audiences in Southeast Asia.”

The success of the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup for international teams in the region suggests it could work, with 90,000 routinely attending matches and television rights proving a hot commodity.

Fusing a club competition with an international rivalry has interested some.

“The ASL is likely to see a lot of attention from sponsors,” John Yap, chairman of former S.League club Gombak United, told Singapore daily The New Paper.

“Because it showcases national rivalries, it may just be the right concoction to take regional football to the next level.”

But whether it will ever be enough to wean sponsors and fans alike off the English Premier League only time will tell.