A new Accord: Why SportAccord’s return to Asia could not be more timely

After a series of events in Europe, SportAccord returns to Asia this year, bringing its usual phalanx of sports industry, federation and host city leaders with it to the Thai capital of Bangkok. With both the national and continental markets growing in scale and influence, the timing is very interesting indeed.

A new Accord: Why SportAccord’s return to Asia could not be more timely

Over a number of years, SportAccord has become the global meeting place for sports federations, rights holders and city hosts. Bringing together an unparalleled range of industry leaders, it has become an unmissable date in the calendar, a key staging post for bidding campaigns, and the spark for a plethora of new conversations and relationships.

Having dropped the ‘Convention’ title that distinguished it from what is now GAISF, the umbrella organisation that used to go by SportAccord until 2017, the event will make its long-awaited and timely return to Asia from 15th to 20th April after a series of editions in Europe. It has tagged itself as the ‘World Sport and Business Summit’, reflecting its pre-eminence in the sports industry and the opportunities for scale its location presents.

The venue will be the Centara Grand & Bangkok Convention Centre in the Thai capital.

For Weerasak Kowsurat, Thailand’s minister for tourism and sport, there is no overstating the opportunity for the industry in Thailand to have an event where “all the big bosses and the big boys in sports are gathering all together under one roof ”.

“Every single sportsman, sports player, sports practice can get access to them at some point,” says Kowsurat. “That is the first thing I think because speaking logistically it’s pretty hard to get all of them to be in any one particular town or city at the same time. That is the first thing I see. The second thing I see is the content they are going to discuss about during the convention.”

The Thai capital of Bangkok will host SportAccord from 15th to 20th April

As ever, SportAccord will break up into a series of focused tracks of sessions in 2018: CityAccord, City-to-City, and, for the first time, HealthAccord. However, the tagline for the SportAccord Summit itself will be ‘Uniting A Global Audience: Marketing and Sponsorship for the Future’. Assessing the current state of that marketing and sponsorship landscape will be one of the keynote speakers of the conference – Guy Port, the managing director for Asia at market data and analytics giant Nielsen Sports.

“Asia is an incredibly diverse market,” says Port. “In terms of sports commerce, sponsorship and broadcast, it is no surprise that some markets are much more advanced than others. And while sports like football and basketball enjoy relatively high levels of participation and engagement across the region, there are a lot of sports that are synonymous with specific audiences. Kickboxing in Thailand and Kabaddi in India are just a few examples.

“Whilst this may have presented difficulties for businesses, especially international investment in pan-Asia activations, today, this is much less of an issue. The reason being the strength and growing maturity of sports across the region. In general, where we have compared Asia to markets like the US or Europe in the past, sport has tended to rank lower down the list for the amount of time and money people will spend on it, compared to other leisure and entertainment activities.

“However, this is changing. The growth of sport in Asia is fuelled by the overall interest and commitment to playing, watching and consuming sports across all channels. This is true in professional competitions for both international and domestic sports. There are a number of drivers influencing this shift in attitude towards sports. Most notable is the changing socio dynamics of the younger demographic and fan base, to growing expendable incomes with an interest beyond their own markets. As an example, we can look at cycling in China where participation in cycling is up and is mirrored by the general sport interest and passion in the Tour de France which is up to five times higher for the younger age group.

“One other key element to the growth of sports is investment. A host of major events in Asia over the next five years is turning the world’s eyes east. Around the turn of the next decade, Asia will become the epicentre of major events, hosting three Olympic Games in succession and the 2019 Rugby World Cup. The ability of these pinnacle events to drive engagement from fans and also corporate investment in sport will be a defining characteristic of the Asian markets.”

In an era where the world’s political centre of gravity is shifting, the rising international forces of China and India have naturally garnered much of the conversation around investment in sport. So too have wealthy states in the Gulf region – such as Qatar, the UAE and, increasingly, an emerging Saudi Arabia – whose infrastructural development at home and soft power spending abroad have bought influence and profile.

Across the continent, however, other major centres are in play. “One of those shining lights is Japan,” Port says. “Growth here is largely being driven by Tokyo 2020 – an event which is driving almost US$3 billion of local sponsorships with TOKOG, making it the most successful local sponsorship programme of any Olympics to date. Whilst this is impressive and shows the extent to which Japan as a sports market has developed, what is perhaps just as powerful is that this Olympic programme is kick-starting domestic investment in other areas – from both official and non-sponsors – in categories such as Japanese athletes and sporting federations.”

As in much of the rest of the world, soccer dominates the popular conversation across the whole spectrum of territories in Asia. Much of the local appetite for the sport is satisfied by coverage of competitions from abroad. Germany’s Bundesliga opened a new office last year in Shanghai, China, while its leading clubs have their own bases throughout the region. Spain’s La Liga, which opened its own office in Singapore in 2017, has made a concerted push for Asian growth in recent years, staggering its kick-off times over each weekend to better cater for markets further east.

PyeongChang 2018 was the first of what will be three consecutive Olympic Games in south-east Asia

Then, of course, there is the Premier League, whose following in Asia is as strong as in any other overseas territories. English clubs have attracted considerable sponsorship and investment from countries across the continent, with 2016 champions Leicester City owned by the family of King Power chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabh. south-east Asia, including Thailand, features on the itinerary of many a side, while the league is also looking to growth in regional markets to boost its income in its next TV rights cycle after domestic sales plateaued in February.

For all that, however, there are a huge range of local pursuits that attract fervent local interest. According to Port, these are now gaining commercial credibility and a media foothold, too.

“We are seeing higher interest levels for key domestic properties; football leagues, the Badminton World Federation and ONE Championship are perfect examples of this,” he explains.

“The challenge for global properties is not the potential of Asia, but rather how to engage with Asian fans in a way that tailors content with local relevance, not simply a translation of content from a US or European market. As with any successful activation, sponsorship or partnership, it is vital for content, branded or otherwise, to connect to the sport, to be accessible and relevant. Brands must be sincere and especially in the case of the majority of Asian markets, understand and adapt their messaging to the sociocultural differences that exist region to region.”

Then, of course, there are the Asian behemoths that are beginning to drive support outside of their home markets. Port notes that “most of the ‘crossborder’ fan development” in Asia is still generated by the likes of the Premier League and the National Basketball Association (NBA). But there are examples of internationally popular sporting competitions closer to home.

“The J League is one property which has excelled outside the Japanese market, particularly in Thailand,” Port says. “Whilst professionally the league has done a tremendous job at appealing to an international audience, its success here is based on signing a number of high-profile Thai players and creating a platform for Thai fans to connect with the sport via highreach television rights agreements. This has been aided by dedicated local language and local content social media platforms.

Japan will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup, one of several major events to pass through the country and the continent in the years ahead

“The IPL [Indian Premier League] is another property doing well cross-border, really owning the weeks in April and May for all cricket fans. The IPL’s development has come from both the existing cricket fans, following their home players as well as the large Indian expat community around the world. Having access to a potential international fanbase is one thing, but engaging with them and ensuring they follow the sport abroad is quite another.”

The eyes of the world, of course, have been on south-east Asia in recent months for the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. The Games marked the first of a three-event swing through the region, with Tokyo due to host the summer version in 2020 and Beijing hosting the winter edition in 2022. Port believes it is too soon to tell what commercial impact South Korea’s Olympics will have but he does expect there to be a “positive effect”, not least with other major events on the horizon such as this year’s Asian Games in Indonesia and the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.

“What we have seen with our clients on the ground, particularly in Japan and China, is the spark created in Korea to really drive integration of the Olympics within market programmes leading into 2020 and 2022,” he says. “People are excited. And importantly, so too are the rights owners, sponsoring brands and broadcasters. The spotlight is on Asia and will be here for a considerable time yet. It’s a great time to be in the region and long may it continue.”

For Kowsurat, there are clear benefits to bringing major events into Thailand which go beyond the appeal of sports tourism. “That is one thing,” he says, “looking at it from the economic point of view. But from the social point of view, I see the mix of cultures and people from different backgrounds who come to do the same thing in the same event under the same rules. It creates a new atmosphere for the socialisation of people who adapt themselves to live in the new modern world where they’re so competitive.”

Kowsurat believes that Thailand, like other countries in the region, is experiencing a developmental moment that could change its place within that competitive world. However, it is also experiencing challenges to its economic model that sport can do much to address.

“Thailand and the ASEAN territories are not only having a great economic transformation,” he says, “we also have lots of population. We’re also connecting. ASEAN connectivity, with the growth of economic and population in this area, has been known as one of the best places where money won’t be wasted. And at the same time, we have had a great experience in terms of we were the region of production. We are now moving into the region of service provider.”

The population in Thailand is ageing, he explains, creating changing demands in the marketplace and altering the role of production in the economy. At the same time, sport provides a rapidly emerging middle class with the means for recreation and public health.

“I hope it’ll be one of the major social movements and new culture of this generation,” Kowsurat says. “Therefore, we have the market for them. We even have the money to do it. It’s whether the foreign investors would like to join the bandwagon. Even if they are not here, we still can go.”