Kicking up global recognition

Unlike other over-promising entrepreneurs before him who have bought their way into English Premiership football clubs, newly minted Queens Park Rangers boss Tony Fernandes is at least a realist. Immediately after controlling 66% of the recently promoted club, the AirAsia and Team Lotus F1 owner declared that he will not make any lofty promises and that he “wouldn’t have got involved if he didn’t think it was a profitable venture”.

Clearly, it is all about the business prospects and not merely about living out a childhood dream now that he has the means to do so. While Fernandes cautions that building a winning philosophy at QPR may take years, judging by his recent track record, fans over at Loftus Road can start preparing for better days ahead and possibly even dream of reliving the club’s glory years during the mid 1970s.

With the Premiership attracting growing interest from wealthy American, Russian and Indian businessmen, it is fantastic to finally see a Malaysian name onboard arguably the most exciting football league in the world. Why did it take us so long – Fernandes is only ranked 20th in Forbes’ list of richest Malaysians – to take over an English football club is beyond my comprehension especially with the obvious global marketing and branding benefits on offer.

While much has been spoken and written about his entrepreneurial abilities and how Asia’s budget airlines poster boy bought over the airlines for the cost of a teh-tarik drink and transformed it into the region’s largest budget airlines ten years later, it is his passion for marketing and branding that stands him out from the crowd. “Many people do not realise the power of sport to market a brand,” Fernandes said.

There is a huge opportunity in the sports industries for Malaysian businesses to follow in his footsteps. Although not many SME owners would be able to buy a majority stake in a professional football club, there are many other avenues such as brand endorsements, collaborations and business partnerships to boost brand recognition. Plus, with many global athletes becoming more aware of their comparatively shorter career spans, these personalities are rapidly opening up themselves for international attention as well as becoming increasingly business-savvy.

Tennis star Venus Williams, estimated to be worth US$60 million (RM179 mil) operates an interior design firm and her own fashion line. In addition, she is also part-owner of the Miami Dolphins together with her sister Serena. Fellow tennis glamour girl Maria Sharapova meanwhile was ranked as the top-earning female athlete in the world with an estimated net worth of US$90 million. On top of appearance fees, modelling assignments, brand advertisements, fashion shows, the Russian star also receives royalties on her line of apparel and shoes.

If fashion is not your cup of tea, perhaps you can collaborate with sports celebrities with a big heart in the likes of LA Lakers’ Kobe Bryant who has a basketball academy under his name, or those with diverse interest such as basketball legend Magic Johnson whose wealth of over US$500 million includes partnerships with AMC Theatres, Starbucks, T.G.I. Fridays and 24 Hour Fitness.

And one cannot talk about sports and business without mentioning golf great Greg Norman. The ‘Great White Shark’ is widely recognised for his feats on the green and his entrepreneurial endeavours off it. From designing over 70 golf courses throughout the globe, inking his name on wineries, property developments, to being involved in production houses as well as other merchandising and licensing initiatives, the Australian is visible almost everywhere you turn.

Recognising the potential in terms of international positioning and global branding, the government has marked 2011/12 as the Sports Industry Year, and has urged local businesses to tap the growth potential of the sports industry in the country. In 2009, the sports industry alone contributed over RM30.2 billion to the country’s Gross Domestic Product.

Smaller businesses may not always need to go the conventional way to be involved in the sports industry; they just have to be creative. Before Tune Group’s innovative logo placed on football referees’ arms became the talk of town, no one thought about it. When no dared, Nike branded the first shoe named after a basketball player, the Air Jordan. It went on to be the brand’s top selling series.

Today, with Datuk Nicol David and Datuk Lee Chong Wei on top of their games, and to a certain extent, the revived Malaysian football team, perhaps it is time a Malaysian SME step up to the plate for a swing at the competition. As Tony Fernandes has shown, every SME can fly high.

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