The Iron Fans: the fanatical supporters of British football in Asia

They’re known as Iron Fans, football enthusiasts whose passion for the Beautiful Game – and the Premier League in particular – makes them among the sport’s most ardent and valuable followers. When the 2016-17 Premier League season kicks off on August 13, the Iron Fans will be glued to their screens. But what’s fascinating about Iron Fans is not how much they love the game, but where they are. Iron Fans are not, as you might suspect, in the UK. In fact, they’re not even in Europe – they’re located up to 5,000 miles away in China, and they’ll be watching the matches – in the early hours of the morning – in Mandarin. British football in Asia has enjoyed phenomenal growth in recent years, and Asia’s total soccer fan base is already estimated at more than a billion. According to sports research company Repucom, more than 820 million of those fans follow the Premier League. While China’s 400 million football fans are arguably the most passionate in the world, other Asian countries have also seen tremendous growth in fan engagement. India is home to some 170 million fans, a sum greater than all the fans in the UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and USA combined. That figure is set to soar to more than 480 million by the year 2020 and – at present – most of those fans get their League match fix in Hindi. In India, some 170 million fans tuned in for the first ever Indian Super League two years ago and football is now the second most followed sport in the nation. Since 2011, soccer viewership in India has grown by 134%.

Live Streaming: Its impact on Asian Fan Engagement

football fan engagment

There are several key factors behind British football’s soaring fan engagement in Asia, but one of the key reasons is just the Premier League got in there first. Long before Europe’s other leagues had even begun to think about expanding their exposure overseas, the BBC and ITV were already dominating screens across Asia, bringing multi-million-dollar windfalls to League clubs in the form of lucrative broadcast rights. By 2014, 98% of all Premier League matches were available to TV viewers outside of England – with North Korea and Albania the only two countries with no officially licensed access. Businesses have leveraged this exposure, tying in their brands and raising awareness of players and teams with multi-million-pound commercial sponsorship deals. These have created a vast army of shirt-wearing, anthem-chanting, merchandise-hungry fans but it’s the sport’s accessibility which is fuelling the business of soccer in Asia. There’s no doubt that Premier League matches are conveniently timed for Asia: matches which start at 33 pm in England air at 10 pm or 11 pm in Southeast Asia. Perhaps no surprise then that Spain’s La Liga is lagging behind in popularity; their 8 pm matches air at around 3am/4am in Asia. It’s not just about timing, however. Localisation is also a key factor in football’s growing popularity in Asia. The vast majority of matches shown live in Asia have local presenters who improve fan engagement by augmenting Sky and BT feeds with commentary in local languages. China, for example, has no English language broadcasts at all but fans, 26% of whom support Manchester United can choose from a staggering 18 different channels to watch the Premier League in Mandarin. The story is similar right across the region. In Japan – where Arsenal vie with Chelsea as the country’s most popular team – J Sports and NHK make sure it all sounds familiar and throughout the Indian sub-continent, Manchester United’s millions of devotees get to watch their team’s progress in Hindi. When the Premier League began in 1992-93, global TV rights were worth some £8 million a year. By 2013, that figure had soared to a staggering £5.5bn, and around half the Premier League’s billion-strong global fan base now hail from Asia. The 2016-2019 deal announced in February defied even the rosiest expectations, taking that figure up to a record-breaking £8.3 billion, up some 50%.

The Future of British Football in Asia

football fan engagement

But while the Premier League might seem to have it all sewn up, Asia still offers tremendous potential for other leagues and indeed sports. The key – as the Premier League has shown – is accessibility – catering to fans with local language live broadcasts taking place at convenient times, supported by off-season team visits for exhibition matches, or tournaments such as the Premier League Asia Trophy. Furthermore, sport (and news) are – perhaps inevitably – areas of programming where catch-up TV and video-on-demand is of little interest. In June, the BBC confirmed that news bulletins and sports matches are rarely watched on catch-up; the bulk of audiences watch live. Channel 4 agreed, saying the Grand National was mostly watched live while ITV echoed the findings with regard to Euro 2016 matches.

Multiple language live streams: fundamental in keeping fans engaged

Asia’s football fans have clearly shown they are hungry for sports action, relayed live, in their own language. And with less than 6% of the world’s population speaking English as a first language, it’s little surprise that media outlets stand to significantly increase their audiences by creating localised versions of their live programming. The importance of localisation can’t be over-estimated. Asia hosts a third of the world’s population, but most of the continent’s 49 countries still have a native language as their official tongue.

How Volcano City can help

Broadcasters often recognise the value of engaging viewers with localised live streams but are often deterred by what they believe will be prohibitively high costs. In fact, they have little to fear. High-quality localisation can be surprisingly straightforward and won’t break the bank either. We offer a range of live streaming solutions to help you increase fan engagement across the world, at a low cost. Check out the range of solutions here to see how we can work with you. Alternatively, contact us today for a free, no-obligation consultation to discuss the live streaming solutions specifically suited to you.

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