When Bayern Munich won their 10th straight Bundesliga title, calls for reform in order to improve competition returned. On the other side of the world in Asia however, Bayern are still holding their own against other European giants.
“I enjoy watching Bayern win whenever I can and it is not boring at all,” Li Jie Goh, a fan of the club based in Malaysia, told DW. “As long as they win the Champions League or get to the final then I am happy. That is when you see the best of Bayern.”
That is a sentiment the club understands.
“Generally speaking, the popularity in Asia depends not on the domination of Bayern in the league, but on other factors, such as victories in the Champions League,” Philipp Wunderlich, head of Bayern’s Shanghai office, told DW. “How Bayern play against Barcelona or Manchester City will be very relevant for football fans.”
The continued growth of the Premier League is a threat on and off the field for Bayern.
“Bayern have their following but are now finding it more difficult to compete with the top Premier League clubs in Asia,” said Chaudhuri.
England’s top flight is the richest league in the world, and with that comes a host of the world’s best players and coaches. In the past, Erling Haaland might have left Borussia Dortmund for Bayern Munich. Instead, the Norwegian star has joined Manchester City. With Robert Lewandowski also looking like a man on the move, Bayern have work to do to replace both the Pole’s goals and his star power.
Robert Lewandowski is one of the club’s most popular players
“Fans here are also focusing on celebrities,” said Wunderlich. “Messi or Ronaldo are quite influential on social media. Sometimes if the big names transfer from one club to other, many fans also change their clubs.”
Bayern stars Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Müller are popular in China and the club’s tour in 2017 made a huge difference, but more is needed. Bayern are active in the country’s unique social media market, claiming 116 million followers in general and over six million followers on social media.
In the 2022 Red Card report, an annual online performance index of European clubs in China compiled by Shanghai-based sports digital company Mailman Group, Bayern ranked sixth.
The Bundesliga champions were behind the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester United but above Liverpool, Juventus and Manchester City. The report also ranked Bayern’s Thomas Müller as the fourth most popular player in China, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar.
The report praised Bayern for being the first European club to launch on Bilibili, to create interactive long-form videos on a platform associated with gaming that has a young audience and 267 million monthly active users.
“Compared to Germany, China is much more digital,” Wunderlich said. “We have our own accounts on all relevant social media channels in China and have dialogue on Chinese platforms everyday with our fans.”
While match-viewing events have helped during a pandemic that ruled out Bayern’s planned 2019 tour, the work done on social media is proving pivotal to increasing Bayern’s foothold in this part of the world.
Past visits to India have helped Bayern establish themselves in another massive market. The club has made five visits to India and German-based Indian football consultant Arunava Chaudhuri believes that although they missed a trick when Pep Guardiola was head coach, the opening of offices in Shanghai and Bangkok and the work Oliver Kahn is now doing as CEO is changing the club’s international approach.
“Bayern has connections with the country and have visited five times,” Chaudhuri told DW. “The B-team was here in 2005 and 2009. They have a certain level of commitment to the market and have done so for a long time.”
While there has been a lack of visits from the senior team in recent years, the club has been more active in player scouting. Bayern’s famous youth tournament, the biggest and oldest international youth football tournament in the world, takes place every year in countries all over the world including India.
In 2021, Shubho Paul’s call-up to Bayern’s World U-19 squad, a group of 15 players from various countries, was widely reported on in India. “They would be sitting on a goldmine from a commercial standpoint,” said Chaudhuri. “It would bring a new dimension to football in India and Bayern.”
Malaysia is very much Premier League territory. It was the only league shown on television in the 1970s. Two decades later, the country was targeted by the Premier League in its first wave of international marketing. According to television officials in Kuala Lumpur, even a big Bayern game usually receives less than half the viewing figures of an average English match.
“The Premier League has made its impact in Malaysia for decades,” Haresh Deol, Editor of TwentyTwo13, a Kuala Lumpur media company. “Fans of today follow a certain English team because their grandfathers and/or fathers. It has to do with our colonial past.”
It would take time and money to find space in Malaysia but there are possibilities, according to Deol.
“La Liga has invested money by engaging with Malaysian fans. Bayern can do the same but only if it feels there’s a market here for its brand. Many teams often overlook this part of the world simply because they think interest in their brands is low compared with English teams.”
To do that, winning in Europe is much more important than winning in Germany.
Edited by Jonathan Harding