“You’re from London?”
That was the first question out of the tour guide’s mouth while I was recently holidaying on rather sunnier shores than those of the British Isles. Abu Dhabi to be precise.
His second question though, was by far my favourite moment of the trip:
“So do you support Arsenal or Chelsea?”
Admittedly the funniest part was the look on the face of my travelling companion – a Spurs season ticket holder – but it does raise a rather controversial consideration.
Has Arsenal’s decision to focus on Asia and the Middle-East in recent years been vindicated?
As the biggest market in the world, much has been made of Arsenal’s decision to largely ignore the US in favour of less developed markets such as those in Asia.
The club’s main sponsor for almost a decade now is the largest airline in the Middle-East, Dubai-owned Emirates. Their name and logo have been emblazoned across various editions of Arsenal strips – a somewhat transient link – but they have also become a rather more indelible part of the club through the stadium sponsorship.
Certainly in the early days of our mooted departure from Highbury, I was adamant that the new ground would be known as Ashburton Grove, that the Emirates branding would be no different to subsequent the Sports Direct affiliation with St James’ Park.
Yet it turns out to be much harder to keep a brand new stadium away from the contamination of naming rights, and today it’s even affectionately referred to as “The Ems” in some quarters.
Then there are the pre-season tours – Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam and Japan have all hosted fixtures in recent years, with Singapore and Thailand the planned destinations for the summer of 2015.
In all that time, Arsenal have made just a solitary appearance in the US, and then only to play a New York Red Bulls team heavily influenced by a certain Thierry Henry.
The US has a vast collection of popular domestic sports – baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey to name but a few – and there’s an argument to say that penetrating the US market is quite difficult.
Of course there is an existing fan base who deserve the chance to see their team live, as in many countries around the world, but in terms of gaining new fans there are already lots of sports as well as heavy interest from other Premier League clubs.
Aston Villa, Crystal Palace, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Swansea, Spurs and West Brom all found time to visit the States in the summer of 2014 along with Arsenal, for example. So although it’s an important market, it’s also a congested one.
Where Arsenal have been really successful in Asia and the Middle-East has been at least in part down to getting in there early.
Manchester United first forayed into Asia in 1995, but few other clubs arrived that early.
Arsene Wenger’s preference for a more private and low-key training camp in Austria is legendary, but his own history in Asian football plays a part in the club’s popularity there.
Indeed, you can’t help but feel that the manager’s eventual acquiescence to a long-haul trip was softened somewhat by the Asian destination, a year later taking a trip down memory lane against his old club Nagoya Grampus.
It’s all in the timing
It may not be a popular view, but it could turn out to be just as easy (or difficult) to penetrate the US market in 2020 as it was in 2000. By choosing to focus on gaining a foothold in the Eastern countries while the opportunity was at its greatest, Arsenal may find that they have built up a market leading presence there without compromising their US potential.
The crucial element will be at what point the club changes its focus to encompass the fans (and potential fans) across the Atlantic and those in the vast collection of countries where Arsenal have fans, but have yet to visit.
By building up that popularity in Asia and the Middle-East first, Arsenal may actually be laying the foundations of a stronger global brand which can then allow the club to maximise their success in remaining markets when they do take the opportunity to travel there. After all, the first team can’t travel to every country every year.
2014’s visit to New York showed some early signs of consideration for a more global approach, and with a solid following now established in Asia, the club can afford to share itself around better. The pre-season tours are, after all, as much about meeting existing fans as welcoming new Gooners into the fold.
As long as the club adapt their focus soon to serve fans the world over, I fully understand and even support the decision to focus on Asia in recent years.
It’s nice to know that your club is recognised and appreciated, wherever you holiday around the world!
Just as importantly, it seems that wherever I go, Spurs remain in their rightful place – in our shadow.
Or for the natives of Abu Dhabi, altogether invisible.