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Soccer-Juve seek bite out of Premier League's Asia apple

Reuters

By Patrick Johnston

SINGAPORE, Aug 15 (Reuters) - When Manchester United's opening English Premier League fixture was brought forward, Italian champions Juventus had to switch their pre-season friendly in Singapore to avoid a clash. In Southeast Asia, only one league matters.

Juventus want to change that, though, and claw back some ground in a region where they used to compete for audiences with English sides when Serie A was at its best.

"We all know where Serie A was in Southeast Asia back in 1995 to 2002, we know that it was a stronger league. Everywhere you were going you saw Serie A but we lost massively compared to English Premier League," Nicola Verdun, Juventus' head of global partnerships, told Reuters on Friday.

"All the clubs in the Premier League have been gaining. Even a smaller (English) club which has less interest, they have been seeing fans wearing their jerseys in this region because you can see their matches."

Verdun said the Premier League's flexibility to move fixtures earlier to cater to Asian audiences had paid off while Italian organisers still ensure the best matches are played in the European evenings when most of Asia is asleep.

United's opener against Swansea City on Saturday kicks-off at 1145 GMT or 1945 Singapore time, meaning bumper sales at bars, restaurants and coffee shops in the citystate at prime time.

It also was part of the reason Juventus' fixture against a Singapore selection, the first football fixture at the country's new 55,000-seat national stadium, was moved forward two hours to 1800 local time.

"You can't compare an official Premier League game, even an official Serie A game, with a friendly game," Verdun said, when asked about Saturday's kickoff time being moved to avoid a clash.

"If we are coming in 10 years and we are going to play at the same time as a Premier League match and we are going to play a top European club then I would say maybe we can fight, in terms of audience."

Maybe and not definitely as the English league has swept through Asia and captivated fans and sponsors alike.

Chelsea and Manchester United boast offices in the region, Hong Kong hosts a biennial English Premier League trophy, Manchester City bought an Australian club and even newly promoted Burnley toured Singapore in recent years.

TOUGH TASK

Juventus, Italy's most successful club with 30 league titles, have a tough ask ahead of them but they do have plans to muscle in on the market.

"We might look into a joint venture with other local clubs within the league, like maybe a Japanese club in terms of exchanging information about sports perspective and marketing and maybe playing a game together," Verdun said.

"In terms of what Manchester City have been doing I think it's quite unique, they made a calculation of what was the outcome of buying an Australian football club. We never thought about that."

It is one of the many ideas the club has to increase growth in the region, including internal discussions about playing Serie A matches in the continent, but Verdun questioned the helpfulness of the Italian league organisers.

"The league is definitely not doing enough because if they were doing enough and we are where we are today we have a major problem. So we need to have a league that is for the interest of all the clubs.

"But we are not a market that is used to making big changes straight away," he added, pointing to the initial reluctance of fans and players when some league matches kicked off earlier to cater to foreign audiences.

"At the end we all want to make more money, to pay them, to buy top players and to do that you need to activate your programmes in the market and engage with fans."

The Singapore leg of their pre-season tour comes after visits and matches in Australia and Indonesia where they avoided the lure of the opening weekend of English football.

A further stop would have come in China for the Suppercoppa Italiana against Coppa Italia winners AS Roma but the capital club could not travel because they had Champions League qualifying matches either side of the traditional August season-opening fixture.

The scheduling demands of the many competitions make organising crucial tours a tricky task, particularly on the back of a World Cup when players are tired.

"Absolutely from a commercial market perspective, it's always a balance to find a solution that works for all and you need to get used to it," Verdun said.

"That is key (Serie A working together). Compared to La Liga, Barcelona and Real Madrid go and sell tv rights in any market they want and it's up to them what they want to do.

"For us we are not allowed to because it is the right of the league so we have to work with the league and the other clubs to become stronger." (Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)

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