With the European soccer season stretching into August due to the coronavirus, it’s been all too easy to forget the loss of the sport’s traditional summer staple — the international tour.
The annual excursions don’t only generate massive revenue for everyone involved — Barcelona received nearly $14 million for participating in the 2018 International Champions Cup, according to Der Spiegel — but offer clubs a chance to connect with loyal fans in far-flung corners of the world and engage with local stakeholders, sponsors and media.
But when the extent to which the pandemic would disrupt the sports world became apparent this winter, officials at Germany’s Borussia Dortmund realized that their plans for a summer tour of Asia — including potential stops in China, Singapore and Japan, as well as a first-ever visit by a legend’s team to India — would need to be shelved.
“We’re a football club, our players are assessed by their performance on the pitch and we’re assessed by playing in games and tournaments, but nothing was happening,” Suresh Letchmanan, managing director of the team’s Asia office, said this week. “Players were staying at home doing their own exercises. What’s out there for us?”
Like many other clubs suddenly left without fresh content, Dortmund went to its archives, posting highlights and other fan-friendly material on its social media channels. The positive response led Letchmanan and others at the club to consider how an Asian tour could be implemented — even if the players wouldn’t be able to travel.
“We saw that and thought, why don’t we (do) something as though the team were traveling but put it on a digital platform,” said Letchmanan. “We brainstormed and came up with a very unique feature of having a virtual tour in markets we were supposed to be in.”
The efforts of Letchmanan and his team resulted in the Black and Yellow Asia Virtual Tour, which saw Dortmund connect digitally with fans in countries who under normal circumstances may have watched their favorite players in person at summer friendlies.
As part of the tour, which took place last weekend, the club broadcast a training session live for Chinese fans and dispatched mascot Emma to the official Dortmund store in Shanghai. First-team players participated in an online skill challenge with a local Singaporean club, while Southeast Asian media were offered media sessions with the club’s internationals such as Emre Can and Sebastian Kehl.
In Japan, Dortmund emphasized its grassroots efforts through a webinar with J. League third-division side Iwate Grulla Morioka and the Dortmund Soccer Academy, both of which are owned by English school chain Nova.
“We could have signed with (first-division clubs) Urawa Reds or Kashima Antlers, but we have a good relationship with Nova,” said Letchmanan. “We wanted to find ways to share our experiences with the club by having coaches share the Dortmund way of football (and even) scouting for young footballers.”
In another event, former goalkeeper Roman Weidenfeller spoke with students at Teikyo University, one of a handful of universities the club is partnered with in the region.
“We felt that sports and education have ways to connect with each other. There are top experts from our club (including) nutritionists, psychologists, coaches in different age groups,” said Letchmanan. “This is knowledge we have, and we’d like to transfer that knowledge to the world. That’s why we wanted to partner with a university, especially with aspiring students looking to embark into the sports world or sports management world.”
Dortmund’s presence in Japan has developed over the last decade thanks to former Samurai Blue midfielder Shinji Kagawa, who joined the club from Cerezo Osaka in 2010 and was a key contributor to the team’s two straight Bundesliga titles in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
After two seasons with Manchester United, Kagawa returned to Dortmund and would eventually travel with his teammates for the club’s first-ever visit to Japan in 2015, where they beat Kawasaki Frontale in a sold-out game at Todoroki Stadium.
“He was an absolute role model, not just from a Japanese perspective but an Asian perspective,” Letchmanan said. “Shinji was there not to sell merchandise or have his name on the back of the shirt, he’s there to play football. He’s there because he’s a talented player. He’s there because the coaches and technical team believe in his abilities.
“To be absolutely honest, Japan was our first market that we embarked even before going to the international side of the business. Japan organically opened up and embraced what Dortmund was, because we gave one of their sons a chance to play at the highest level.”
The legacy of Kagawa and his manager at the time, current Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, has allowed Dortmund to cement its image in Asia, despite having entered the region far more recently than bigger European clubs such as Liverpool and Manchester United.
“Asia is about success, stardom, being popular. It’s following your footballing idol, your Beckhams, Ronaldos, Messis,” said Letchmanan. “The Premier League’s presence here in the last 15 to 20 years is well ahead of everyone else, to be honest. But we run our own race, we don’t compete with other leagues or clubs.
“It’s good to understand exactly what (the bigger clubs) are looking to achieve, but our structure and strategy is absolutely different. We have been here for the last six years, enjoying every moment of it.”
Boosted by its growing digital presence in Japan — the club’s LINE account boasts over 115,000 fans, and its newly launched Japanese-language Twitter has gained 7,000 subscribers in less than four weeks — Dortmund plans to continue its digital outreach in the country over the next year, with more bespoke video content and opportunities for fan engagement.
“This whole virtual tour has given us a platform to understand what’s needed in Japan,” said Letchmanan. “The whole ecosystem for Japan is solid, but we need to find ways to engage a little further.
“In these difficult times it’s not easy to have spectators, and we don’t know how long that will last, but we need to be a little creative and know that there are ways to get the media and fans closer to the club. We can’t be there physically, but we can be there in heart.”