With just under 500 days until Australia hosts the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, Michael Cockerill gets the perspective of tournament chief executive Michael Brown.
With just under 500 days until Australia hosts the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, footballaustralia.com.au associate editor Michael Cockerill gets the perspective of tournament chief executive Michael Brown.
Q. Michael, right now, how big an event do you think the Asian Cup really is?
A. By all indicators it's the second biggest football competition to the FIFA World Cup. For us, it's the sheer size of Asia - you've got half the world's population residing in our region - so you've got the world game from the biggest continent coming to Australia at a time when there are so many positive things (happening) around football here. We had the disappointment of missing out on the (2022) FIFA World Cup, but the Asian Cup isn't the second prize. It's a fantastic opportunity for us to host an amazing sporting event. We've been fortunate in the (2014) World Cup qualifiers to have played many of the big teams - we saw 80,000 people in Japan (Saitama), we saw 80,000 people in Sydney (against Iraq). Here we've got an opportunity to step out of the slumber, so we've got to make 2015 really special. The positive thing for us is we're coming from below zero. People outside the football family aren't yet aware of the Asian Cup, so we can create a real wave.
Q. So how do you go about doing that? It's one thing talking about it, it's another actually making it happen.
A. You've got to be simple in your approach. The diverse, multi-cultural, nature of our country presents real opportunities. South Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, we're a big, (culturally) rich, country with a love of football. For us driving awareness is simple. Television ads aren't going to get us the penetration into the Chinese market, the Japanese market. They don't even watch mainstream television. So we have to engage these communities through social media and their own media. There are something like six or seven Chinese-language newspapers in Sydney, maybe four Vietnamese radio stations in Melbourne. We have to get out and talk to them. Simple messaging, building awareness, which hopefully leads to full stadiums. We're smart enough to know we're not going to get every stadium to capacity, but football links so many people to their communities.
Q. If you could put a percentage on it, how much of the Organising Committee's efforts will be spent on connecting at a grass roots level with the Asian communities here in Australia?
A. The Asian communities are important, but there will also be lots of people who are European, South American, Anglo-Saxon, so it's about the whole football family. This is a world-class event, so I don't want us to focus only on Asian communities. They're important, but we want everyone who wants to come and experience a big event. When you've got 32 games of football in 23 days, that's a pretty intense competition.
Q. Looking at the qualifiers as they stand, in a marketing sense how important to you is it that China qualify, and possibly Iran and Iraq - three teams who can pull a crowd here in Australia?
A. We've got seven of our top 10 trading partners trying to qualify, but obviously China is huge. Whatever happens this is a massive opportunity for us to showcase our football, but it's also about our ability to work in the Asian marketplace. To embrace trade, tourism, different communities, it's a big chance to bring all of us together. We want to give them (fans) the confidence to come.
Q. Do you need China to qualify, do you need Iran, Iraq, to qualify?
A. We need 16 competitive teams.
Q. So you're not hung up about these teams being here?
A. We would love China to qualify, but it's a process. We would have loved India to qualify because of the size of their community here in Australia. But we're going to have 16 world-class teams, and it's about us putting on a world-class event. To be granted the rights to host this by the AFC is a huge honour, so we need to be incredibly respectful, show them how well we can manage big events, and hand it (tournament) back in better shape than we received it.
Q. What are your benchmarks for a successful tournament, and what do you sense are the AFC's benchmarks? Are they the same?
A. To be fair the AFC are very much about the game. This is their World Cup, so it's about the technical delivery of the matches. For me it's about the legacy we leave football here in Australia. There are so many positive things happening in our game, so we have to leave something behind. We're spending money on training sites for instance, and they'll help the grassroots of the game. If we can leave the game with more potential spectators, potential participants, then we've done our job.
Q. Would you agree, as the AFC seem to believe, that marketing is an Australian area of expertise, and therefore you have the opportunity to take take the event to another level. There have been lots of empty seats in the past.
A. I'm more inspired by what we can do for the sport. We'd like to show the AFC we are a genuine football nation. We'll be innovative, we'll be a little bit edgy, from the opening ceremony onwards. Hopefully that sets a benchmark. We want to bring a wave of excitement to the games.
Q. It's been almost a decade since Australia joined the AFC. Do you think Australians 'get it' in terms of the connection to Asia, or do we still have a long way to go?
A. It concerns me when you see empty stadiums anywhere. If you're not getting people to the games, you've got to try and understand why. Between October and next March, Australian teams will play 60-odd games in Asia - men's, women's, AFC Champions League. In the past, we haven't capitalised on those opportunities. We haven't thought hard enough about how to engage. We need to build a collegiate approach, to build relationships. We've got to do more than that. If we're not connecting, we have to re-visit it, because otherwise we may as well play down at the local park.
Q. The Asian Cup has effectively been underwritten ($61million) by various levels of government. How can you use the government to promote the tournament?
A. We've got an amazing network with both Federal and State governments. It's given us access to people like Austrade, Tourism Australia, Destination NSW. Government have not only given us money, but they're putting their resources behind it. There's a whole range of different actitivites that will go on. For instance we've commissioned an upper Primary (school), lower High (school) resource which teachers can take off-line and use in their classrooms to talk about Asian football, the Asian Cup. That will be another contribution we can make to build awareness of Asia.
Q. So far it's been a slow-burner in terms of the profile of the tournament. Is the (final) draw next April the start of the home straight in a promotional sense?
A. We'll get an idea by the end of this year who won't qualify, but once you get the final draw, you can chart where Japan will play, you can chart where Iraq will play, so that will lead into our marketing plan and our ticket sale strategy. So, yes, it's really the starting point.
Q. Are the tickets price sensitive?
A. It's a big issue for us. We've researched 30,000 people as part of our strategy. It was a big piece of work, and the key message to come out of it were the prices, family prices, and the ability to buy ticket packages. We're looking at the price structure now, and it will be very much about family-affordable prices.
Q. How many tickets can you sell?
A. If we sold 500,000 we'd be thrilled.
Q. Where does active support fit in?
A. We are talking about an active support base. If you want to come and sit with your fellow Japanese supporters you can do that. We're talking to Terrace Australis (Socceroos supporters group) about having their own designated bays. We want people to come along and enjoy the football, so we'll present different options.
Q. Are you trying to create heroes, in terms of the players?
A. Absolutely. Our first step towards that was making Lucas Neill our Captain Ambasador. When I spoke to him 12 months ago, you could see his enthusiasm to be part of this, to see the opportunites. Through him, we can get to know people like (Keisuke) Honda, the superstars of the Asian game. As we become aware of the teams that have qualified, it will be about showcasing the superstars.
Q. Does this tournament live or die by the success of the Socceroos?
A. No. It can't. On a good day our planning is around the Socceroos winning the event. But we've got to be realistic. What if the Socceroos don't make the quarter-finals, or beyond? The Socceroos bring an amazing strength, but we can't live or die by that.
Q. Finally, come the day after the final, and you're looking in the mirror, what do you want to be able to say to yourself?
A. I'd just like to see people happy about coming to the football. The easiest metric is the crowds, but I just want people to enjoy coming to the games. That, to me, will mean we've capitalised. We'll never see a football event like this again in my lifetime. It's a huge stake in the ground. I want to look in that mirror and know we've exhausted every avenue, every energy, and that football is one step further advanced.