Insights from Asia: A true measure of success
In our strategic discussions with leagues across the Asian region, it is clear how significant results in the AFC Champions League (ACL) is in providing a measure of success. It is notoriously difficult to benchmark your progress against other Asian leagues without sophisticated statistical models, leaving leagues to rely on performance in Asia’s premier club competition to measure their progress against regional rivals.
Results since the current competition format was introduced in 2002 suggests that the competition has been dominated by clubs from either the East Asian or West Asian Football Federations. Clubs from these two federations have accounted for 82% AFC Champions League finalists during this period.
This suggests that these federations are a) broadly similar in strength and b) collectively the strongest among the five Federations that make up the AFC. In reality, however, the East Asian Football Federation is the strongest based on the quality and depth of their best teams. According to our World Super League model, which ranks teams globally based on results domestically and in cross-border competitions, 17 out of the strongest 25 teams in Asia play in either Japan, China or South Korea. The only teams from the West to make the top 25 are Al-Hilal (7th) and Al-Nassr (10th) from Saudi Arabia, Al-Duhail (16th) from Qatar and Shabab Al-Ahli (21st) from the UAE.
This is reflected in the number of titles won by clubs from each Federation. Teams from the East have won 11 of the 17 titles (65%) versus just five for teams from the West despite the high number of final appearances (the remaining title was won by the Western Sydney Warriors of the ASEAN nations in 2014).
Based purely on merit, the East Asian Football Federation should have the greatest representation in the competition. But the ACL is a competition designed to showcase the breadth of football across the Asian region. As a result, some of Asia’s strongest teams miss out on ACL qualification because of the strength and depth within their domestic competition. Japan, for example, is home to eight of the strongest 25 teams in Asia, but only have four qualification spots for the ACL. Kawasaki Frontale, currently top of J1 League, are the prime example. They are the strongest team in the entire region according to our World Super League model yet are not even competing in the 2020 edition of the ACL owing to their 2019 finishing position – further evidence of the high standards of the Japanese domestic competition.
There is an inevitable inefficiency in qualification for a competition spanning a region as diverse as Asia – teams from the West and ASEAN are perhaps disproportionately represented in the competition.
The implications of this are two-fold. First, leagues should be building strategies to take advantage of this situation through doing all they can to set their best teams up for success in the ACL. Good results generate a higher AFC Competitions ranking, leading to more qualification spots. More spots (plus the continued positive results) lead to greater commercial value for the league as a whole resulting in more revenue for all clubs – the success of a few teams in the ACL can benefit the entire league. We have seen this done in Europe, where the Dutch Eredivisie, for example, have rescheduled domestic games in order to help AFC Ajax prepare for key UEFA Champions League matches.
Second, leagues should be looking beyond performance in the ACL as a barometer of their success. While it is critical to showcase the league’s capabilities on the biggest available stage, the ACL alone only tells some of the story. Cup competitions are inherently random, meaning that a few lucky performances can skew the perception of a league’s quality. Leagues are also reliant on the performance of only a small number of their teams, meaning that it only really provides a picture of performance at the top end of the domestic division.
Leagues must find a way to measure success in a way that encompasses their entire strategy. Focusing solely on the ACL might neglect key aspects of what makes the domestic competition attractive, such as competitive balance, or interest in a relegation battle.
Knowing what you are trying to achieve and finding the right way to measure your success at achieving it is key to any successful strategy. Recognising the opportunity that the ACL presents to any Asian league is as important as understanding its limitations in giving you a true measure of success.