Playing for Keeps

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An expanding sports market sees American stars eyeing Asian opportunities, writes Mathew Scott


Lily Muni He was swept up in the commotion that swirled around the scorer’s tent at the end of the HSBC Women’s Championship in March. But the attention wasn’t focused on the America-based Chinese golfer.

Not this time, anyway.

At 19 years of age – and already with around 190,000 followers across social media – the former USC standout is at the forefront of a new generation of North American-based sports stars who are looking to Asia for fortune and fame. Globally, sports are now an industry with an estimated worth of more than US$600 billion. China alone has boasted that it aims to turn sport into a US$290 billion proposition by 2025.

Athletes from around the world are chasing in, with recent endorsement deals signed covering stars who ply their trade in everything from basketball (an US$80 million deal with Chinese sportswear brand Anta for Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson) to badminton (a US$7.5 million deal with Chinese sportswear brand  Li-Ning signed by India’s Kidambi Srikanth).

“I know this is just the beginning,” said He. “Being around all these great players all week has taught me a lot, about how to prepare and how to play. Growth from this experience is the most important thing for me but getting my name and my brand out there is definitely a plus.”

Lily Muni He competing at the HSBC Women's Championship LPGA event in Singapore. Photos courtesy of Singapore Maven

 

Victory at the US$1.5 million LPGA Tour showcase event in Singapore went to 2018 world number one Park Sung-hyun of South Korea, and He was there in the tent signing off for her final round of play at the same time as the winner.

She ended up tied for 57th and some 35 strokes behind but He had captured the imagination of the public and the media throughout the week at Sentosa Golf Club, more for what’s expected of her than what she has so far.

He qualified for the US Women’s Open as an amateur at 15 and picked up a tournament win on the secondary Symetra Tour last year.

He was given a special sponsor’s invite into a tournament that boasted the top-20 female players on the planet – including American stars Michelle Wie, Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson. Signing on with the leading American and international sports management and talent agency IMG has her poised to cash in on the wealth of opportunities that are increasingly emerging in Asia as sports stars take their brands global.

“If you look at the players here this week you can see how far the game of golf has taken them – both on and off the course,” said He.

The Florida-based Ladies Professional Golfing Association now has six Asian stops on its yearly global schedule and they regularly attract the world’s leading players, while the men’s PGA Tour has three.

“The LPGA is now truly global with 28 of the top 50 players coming from Asia Pacific,” said IMG vice-president David Rollo. “For a fan-based perspective there’s a global following. That’s great for the players.

“Korea and Thailand are huge growth markets for golf. Our [sponsorship] partners see the [LPGA] Tour as a global property. They see golf as a platform and women’s golf specifically as a strong platform. Players now embrace Asia as a place to come and there’s more opportunity. As a brand you need to have a global profile.”

Other major sports are getting in on the action with National Basketball Association teams – and individual players – making regular forays east and into emerging markets, while the National Hockey League plays annual games now in China and the National Football League has been dabbling with the same idea.

Relatively new sports are lining up also. Mixed Martial Arts is known as the world’s “fastest growing sport” and emerged from Las Vegas when the Ultimate Fighting Championship started hosting regular events in the early 1990s.

Now, the UFC estimates it has a fan base of around 93 million in Asia, and a regular series of events across the region.

“For a US company doing business in Asia, each country has its own language and culture, heritage and pride. The UFC is a global iconic brand, where the best MMA athletes in the world compete. Rising stars from the region are starting to make their mark in the UFC, and in countries like China where this is happening very quickly, our accession into mainstream and long-term potential are undeniable,” explained the UFC’s Kevin Chang. “We are including regular stops in Asia on our annual calendar of events, distributed on the leading broadcast and social/digital platforms, and investing in talent development.”

Its stars are also gaining traction in terms of popularity in the region, and as well as regular events, the UFC uses regular promotional trips to showcase its talent.

“The markets in Asia continue to grow and by the same token, UFC mega stars like Conor McGregor and Ronda Rousey have gained a following to build their personal brands in the same way that [basketballer] Kobe Bryant and [footballer] Cristiano Ronaldo have done,” said Chang. “We provide fighters with the undisputed global MMA platform and recognition as competing against the best of the best.”

Demetrious Johnson during a promotion tour with the Singapore-based ONE Championship, with whom he recently signed. Photos courtesy of ONE Championship

 

Fighters are quickly beginning to see the opportunities, according to Washington-based flyweight fighter Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, known as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters the sport of MMA has yet seen.

“The feeling I get is that anything is possible,” said Johnson. “Asia is a new horizon in terms of my fighting career but there are commercial opportunities to explore and we are already looking at expanding my brand into new markets such as e-sports which is really exciting.”

Johnson surprised many when he left the UFC and signed on with the Singapore-based ONE Championship martial arts promotion, given his sport is still very much North America focused. But times are changing, he said.

“As any market grows it will attract people wanting to do business and that’s happening with sport and especially with MMA in Asia,” said Johnson. “In some ways fighters certainly are just waking up to what is possible.”

 


Show me the money

Leading income via endorsements 2018 (via Forbes):

 

  1. Roger Federer (tennis) US$65m

  2. LeBron James (basketball) US$52m

  3. Cristiano Ronaldo (soccer) US$47m

  4. Stephen Curry (basketball) US$42m

  5. Tiger Woods (golf) US$42m

  6. Phil Mickelson (golf) US$37m

  7. Rory McIlroy (golf) US$34m

  8. Kei Nishikori (tennis) US$33m

  9. Kevin Durant (basketball) US$32m

  10. Usain Bolt (athletics) and Jordan Spieth (golf) US$30m