Why Asian football is not coming home

John Duerden investigates the domination of international sports stories over regional football stories in Asia.

    Why Asian football is not coming home
    News on Manchester United fill the pages of English papers in China, Japan and Thailand [EPA]

    In Asia, they are familiar to business travelers who see them placed outside their hotel door, expats in their local pubs or students in their language schools.

    The local English-language daily –The Japan Times, The Bangkok Post or the Gulf Daily News to name just a few - can provide valuable information and insight into the country in question.

    Yet when it comes to sport and, especially, football, the content on offer varies wildly and increasingly, local newspapers are filling their sports pages with generic wire reports from international news agencies.

    I think there’s a market for a wide range of sports news… with ad revenue declining for most newspapers, wire stories will continue to play an important role in bringing news to the public

    Sports editor Ethen Lieser , The Korea Herald

    A case in point was the June 24 edition of The Korea Herald, a well-established daily the East Asian nation and generally held to be the better of the two English-language publications in the country.

    With the South Korean national team looking for a new coach and expected to announce one very shortly, former Manchester United star Park Ji-sung talking about his future, the K-League about to restart after the international break and news about European transfers of local players on the grapevine, one would have thought there would be plenty of Korean football news to interest English-speakers.

    The two sports pages were, however, full of generic news about US Ice Hockey, golf and Brazil playing in the Confederations Cup – mostly events at least 24 hours old. Anybody wanting any kind of insight into or information on any Korean football (Korea is an Asian powerhouse) would have been disappointed.

    It is a pattern oft-repeated around the continent. One has to wonder exactly what Japanese readers made of a recent report in the Japan Times informing them that a US basketball commentator was switching employers.

    John Higginson, Managing Editor of SportAsia and an experienced media consultant on the continent believes that English-newspapers should have a healthy mix of local and international articles.

    “English-language newspapers cater to expatriates and many overseas and tertiary-educated 'locals' who are looking for an international perspective on news and issues.,” Higginson told Al Jazeera.

    “There’s clearly still room for several pages of sports news, mixing international and local content. The ideal for the reader is for first-hand reports where available, but the better-quality writers cost significantly more.”

    That seems to be the issue with The Korea Herald, as sports editor Ethen Lieser attests.

    “I would guess it would have to be financial because we don’t allot any reporters to focus solely on sports,” Lieser said.

    “I think there’s a market for a wide range of sports news… with ad revenue declining for most newspapers, wire stories will continue to play an important role in bringing news to the public.”

    Value of English media

    It is hard to argue against simple pounds and pence and dollars and cents though as more newspaper go the international route and the sports pages become increasingly homogenous, they risk losing some of their identity and importance (as well as immediacy with international events described often more than a day old).

    And with Manchester United getting many more column inches than any domestic equivalent, it does not do much to contribute to the health of the local leagues.

    “I shall most certainly say the importance of English language media cannot be ignored or dismissed lightly,” said Singapore journalist Gary Koh, adding that the local S-League has been working to try and arrest the decline of English-language reporting with mixed results.

    “Going beyond Singapore, Malaysia has notably increased its local football coverage as the national team has enjoyed an overall renaissance and improvement. For Thailand, the coverage of local football, particularly the club level, has stepped up…”

    Some newspapers have committed feet to the football beat and been rewarded. The China Daily has had considerable success with its reporting of local sports stories. On the opposite side of the continent, The National of Abu Dhabi has a healthy amount of news and views from the UAE league.

    Football Editor Thomas Woods feels that the time and resources spent is worthy.

    “Our local football has generated reader interaction from as far away as Argentina, Romania and South Korea,” said football editor Thomas Woods.

    “So it is a slow but steady job to generate more interest as each season goes by. It’s also very rewarding.

    “The transient nature of the UAE means that some readers simply won't put in the effort to engage in local sport as they don't think they will be here that long. But there are plenty of UAE football fans about, just looking at Twitter is evidence of that, and we hope we can engage them.

    “The league as a whole … is still trying to attract more expats. It is slowly improving and we are hoping to be part of that change by making the league as accessible and interesting as possible.”

    As some papers continue to use generic international agency reports, they may end up following the Hong Kong example where a number of daily Chinese-language newspapers have popped up in recent times. One hundred percent free and made up of agency reports, they have enjoyed some success and attracted considerable advertising revenue.

    That may be the best way for some English language newspapers in Asia to make money but it is unlikely to result in more relevant coverage of the local version of the beautiful game.

    John Duerden has lived in Asia for over a decade and writes about Asian football for a variety of international and local media including ESPN, Associated Press, The Guardian, 442, New York Times, Fox Sports, Sports Illustrated & International Herald Tribune. You can follow him on Twitter @johnnyduerden

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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