There are concerns in England about whether the increasing dominance of Manchester City will reduce the popular and commercial appeal of the Premier League. The signs in Asia, the biggest overseas market, however, suggest that even a succession of City processions will result in more fans for the club rather than fewer for the league.
“Nobody in South Korea thinks that the Premier League will not be competitive, especially if City can also achieve meaningful results continentally and there are still dogfights between big clubs to qualify for the Champions League,” Baek Jung-hyun, head of planning at KBS Sports, South Korea’s public broadcaster, said. “There are enough interesting points in the Premier League for Korean fans. Arsenal could have been champions and nobody expected that at the start of the season.”
Asia, home to more than half the world’s population, is far from one mass. The regions (there are five football sub-federations: east, south-east, central, west and south) are made up of countries with their own cultures, languages and history. Overall however, England’s top tier is the most-watched of the foreign competitions, with football-loving south-east Asia, home to about 650 million people, the continent’s traditional English football hotbed.
In Malaysia, this season’s television ratings are the highest for six years. Broadcasters believe the upward trend will continue as long as Manchester United and Liverpool, traditionally the two biggest teams in the country, as well as Arsenal and others, are near the top, signing big players and playing good football. Sasi Kumar, a former Singapore international and now CEO of D+1 Sports in Madrid, agrees. “Fans are mixed in Singapore. Liverpool and United fans have the history and many of them are now in their 40s and 50s but the younger fans go for who is winning and who is popular. If City keep winning, I don’t see that it will impact the Premier League in Asia.”
The market for European leagues is a little tougher in China but there, too, England’s is the one to beat and supporters are also not going to switch off if the battle at the top becomes predictable. “Chinese fans won’t be bored as long as the English Premier League keeps spending to attract most of the top talents across the world,” said Luo Ming, editor of the longstanding sports newspaper Titan Sports. “While Manchester City’s dominance in recent years has been evident, the competition for the championship this season has generated a substantial amount of discussion.”
Over in the west, Wael Chehayeb of the Lebanese Football Association estimates that four in five football fans in the country watch the Premier League. “It is by far the most exciting league,” Chehayeb said, adding that there are few concerns about competitiveness. He picks the recent draw between Champions League-bound Newcastle and soon-to-be-relegated Leicester as an example of its unpredictability. “The position of the two teams doesn’t matter – it is not easy to predict the winner.”
Al-Nassr fan Jana Mohammed was watching from Saudi Arabia. “The Premier League is the most popular league here and people support different clubs, especially Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal. No football fan likes to have one team dominant but they like seeing their team winning.” It may be no surprise that there is more excitement in the country for next season with Saudi-owned Newcastle on their way up. “Now, Saudis have another team,” Mohammed said. “Newcastle will be the favourite for many in the future. We feel loyalty to it.”
It could be that Newcastle are the best hope to challenge the United Arab Emirates-backed City. Either way, if the team keep improving, their fanbase will grow. City’s has. Nobody imagined 15 years ago that City could one day challenge Manchester United and Liverpool for the affections of Asian fans.
“Definitely, City are getting more popular in Korea,” said Baek. “Without Park Ji-sung, Manchester United are no longer No 1, with Tottenham having the Korean superhero.” That love may not last beyond Son Heung-min. “Many see Liverpool having the most loyal fanbase in Korea but lately City have seen a hike in popularity not only from their titles but also their attacking style with superstars like [Erling] Haaland and Kevin [De Bruyne].”
In Malaysia, Manchester United and Liverpool are still out in front – the first Merseyside derby was the most-watched game this season – but City’s viewing figures, along with Newcastle’s, are improving. In the Middle East too. “Lebanon fans love Pep,” said City-supporting Chehayeb, and there is a growing fanbase in Saudi Arabia.
It is not just about the players, coach and football but the effort made off the pitch by City Football Group (CFG), of which the Manchester club are one of 13 members. “City do a lot of work in Asia,” said Kumar, an Everton fan. “They push CFG rather than just City and are very active.”
It is going well in Asia. Mumbai City and Melbourne City finished top of the Indian and Australian leagues respectively in the 2022-23 season. There is a 20% stake in Yokohama F. Marinos, the reigning champions of Japan.
In the medium term at least, continued success for Manchester City is more likely to mean more fans for the club rather than less interest in the Premier League. “If there is more domination in the next 10 or 12 years,” Kumar says, “then you will have a whole generation of fans who will have grown up with City winning and Asian fans gravitate towards those who win.”