Sticky Wickets, But What A Future

Opportunities for selling sports in Asia seem endless

For the organizers of China's new pro soccer league, almost everything was in order: There were 30,000 noisy fans and live television coverage. The Beijing players in green jerseys and shoes supplied by their sponsor, Nike, were raring to go against a Guangzhou team decked out in Reeboks. And there were a bunch of billboards bought by advertisers. But amid the signs for Sony, Olympus, and San Miguel beer were big, white gaps where the red-and-white Marlboro logos had been. Earlier this year, Beijing ruled that the ads may violate China's new ban on tobacco advertising. That forced Philip Morris Cos., which was paying an estimated $2 million annually as the league's chief sponsor, to pull out.

For Cleveland-based International Management Group, which organized China's professional soccer league two years ago, such are the spills and thrills of being out in front on Asia's hottest new marketing battlefield. From Bombay to Beijing, foreign sports promoters, broadcasters, and consumer-product giants are pouring millions into sports.

The pace is breathtaking for a region that never took the business of sports seriously. Until recently, stodgy national federations and state-owned broadcasters cared little about corporate sponsorships, TV, or spin-off products. Now, with the arrival of global sports promoters such as IMG and 24-hour sports stations, once genteel pastimes such as badminton, cricket, and table tennis are rushing into big-bucks competition. In soccer, basketball, and golf, entire professional leagues are being started from scratch.

No one seems more enthusiastic about the enormous marketing prospects than the corporate sponsors that are lining up to get in on the action. Japanese racquet manufacturer Yonex Corp., for example, is ponying up $2 million annually as the exclusive equipment supplier for Indonesia's national badminton team. Hiram Walker, R.J. Reynolds, and Rado Uhren are sponsoring golf, tennis, and auto racing events. MasterCard, Pepsi, Gillette, and Canon all have signed four-year, $2.6 million deals to sponsor Asian soccer. Nike has become equipment supplier to soccer and basketball teams in China and has started a series of basketball tournaments for mainland teenagers. "There is no shortage of opportunities," says Breck McCormack, IMG's Hong Kong-based managing director for Asia and son of Chairman Mark H. McCormack. "It's a question of where to focus your resources."

NAME GAME. With government control of the media tight throughout emerging Asia, sponsoring nationally televised sports is seen as the easiest, cheapest way to reach Asia's ballooning middle class of more than 250 million. Take General Motors Corp.'s Adam Opel Div., which last year began assembling cars in Indonesia. GM is paying $850,000 over three years as official sponsor of the country's badminton team. "Not many of our cars are on the road yet, but everyone knows the Opel name," says Andrew Andersz, GM's Asia spokesman.

New sports channels are raising the financial stakes. Prime Sports, part of Rupert Murdoch's Star TV Asian satellite network, is paying an estimated $4 million annually to carry badminton, which is dominated by Asian countries, and it is believed to be shelling out at least $1 million for Chinese soccer. Not to be outdone is ESPN, which by yearend will be beaming satellite signals in Asia around the clock. It recently outbid Prime for rights to Indian cricket with a reported $3 million offer over five years.

While these sums are peanuts compared with the megabucks spent on U.S. and European sports, it's a windfall for the federations that control Asian sports. They mainly have IMG to thank. IMG began promoting table tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball in China in 1979. Since then, it has become exclusive agent for the Asian Badminton Confederation and the Board of Cricket Control in India, as well as China's soccer and basketball bodies. Even Murdoch envies IMG's pervasiveness. "Everywhere we go, you run into IMG and McCormack," says Murdoch. "He got there first."

Badminton is a good example. Obscure as a pro sport in the West, Mark McCormack appreciated its immense popularity in Asia and scooped up marketing rights to the world championships. Now, IMG is putting together invitationals sponsored by single corporations. Ciba-Geigy Ltd. paid IMG $400,000 to host the mid-June Ciba Asia Cup 1995 in Qingdao, China.

IMG is helping turn cricket, India's national pastime, into a commercial gold mine. Three years ago, it negotiated a deal to produce TV programming of Indian matches and handle marketing for the national cricket board. By selling the programs to stations in Australia and Europe and to ESPN, which broadcasts in both Hindi and English, IMG helped put Indian cricket on a world stage. Now, corporate sponsorship money is pouring in. "In India, cricket is the NBA, NFL, and Major League Baseball combined," says Alexander P. Brown, ESPN's managing director for Asia. "The dollars available are very substantial."

IMG is betting that its new Chinese sports leagues will soon outgrow their problems. The 12-team soccer league, started in 1994, has been a hit with fans in most cities and has sponsors for each team. Each team also has corporate sponsors. Nike has four teams--including one owned by the People's Liberation Army.

But losing Philip Morris was a blow. Besides paying $2 million annually to IMG, the tobacco giant spent millions hyping the then Marlboro League throughout China. Three months into the season, IMG hopes Beijing will change its mind. Yet it insists many other sponsors are keen to take Philip Morris' place. IMG is also plunging ahead with its eight-city pro basketball league in China, which gets into full swing in November, although it has yet to sell TV rights or find a main corporate sponsor.

TOUR GUIDE. IMG isn't alone in thinking big. Hong Kong's Asia Sport Group is working to link up federations around Asia to stage regional tournaments. In soccer, it organizes a championship series every two years among national squads of the 44-nation Asian Football Confederation. "There's no reason everyone in Asia has to only watch European championships on TV," says Seamus O'Brien, Asia Sport's founder and chairman.

O'Brien's firm already has sold soccer tournament TV rights to Prime. Now, O'Brien is doing the same with the Asian Basketball Confederation, which launches a pro championship tournament in Kuala Lumpur this October. Prime has bought TV rights; Kodak, Nokia, and McDonald's are among those who have committed $500,000 for four-year sponsorship packages. O'Brien's firm also is investing $8 million this year to launch an Asian Professional Golfers' Assn. tour, which so far has held three tournaments. The 144-player tour will have matches with purses of $150,000 to $400,000 in 15 countries, including Vietnam and China.

For the next few years, the Asian PGA tour and the new sports leagues will probably spend a good deal of time in the rough. But as the world's biggest companies scramble for a share of Asia's spending power, sports promoters are betting that it's only a matter of time before their fledgling ventures become multibillion-dollar businesses.

The Action in Asia


World Cup, Asia championship series, and invitationals organized by International Management Group and broadcast across region by Rupert Murdoch's Prime Sports channel.


New pro league to be launched this year in China by IMG. Asia Sport Group setting up annual Asia championships. Other promoters trying to start Asia-wide pro league.


ESPN forms broadcast joint venture in India and buys regional TV rights. New tournaments organized and intensive marketing of sport for first time in cricket-crazy India.


Asian version of PGA golf tour organized by Asia Sport Group with more than 100 Asian professionals competing for purses of up to $400,000. Broadcast by Prime.


Tournament series organized among 44-member Asian Football Confederation, leading to crowning of an Asian champion. New pro league launched last year in China by IMG.


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