By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE, July 23 (Reuters) – Liverpool’s exile from Champions League football has punched a hole in their finances and disappointed fans across the globe, but has not stopped Asia’s diehards from opening their wallets to see their touring Premier League heroes.
A crowd of up to 95,000 is expected to flock to the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Wednesday to see the likes of Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez take on local club Melbourne Victory in the Merseyside team’s first visit Down Under.
The MCG blockbuster continues a lucrative three-stop tour for Liverpool, who played an Indonesian XI for 83,000 fans in Jakarta on Saturday and will sign off on Sunday in front of another big crowd in Bangkok against Thailand.
The Melbourne match also comes four days after Manchester United attracted a crowd of 83,000 to Sydney’s Olympic Stadium for their 5-1 victory over an ‘All-Star’ team from the local top-flight A-League.
Liverpool may not win a single match against United in the coming season, but the club’s managing director Ian Ayre could allow himself a smile at the idea of trumping their Premier League rivals with the MCG crowd.
“I don’t think we were surprised. We’ve always known that with some of the activity we’ve seen, in the online retailing business, Australia’s the second-largest market for us after the UK home domestic market, which is staggering really given the size of the population,” Ayre told Reuters in Melbourne.
“The number of people that come to our website online and our social media platforms is huge. Obviously the speed of the sale of the tickets, we knew there would be a huge buy-in from our foundation in this part of the world.”
Once a fixture of Europe’s club showpiece, Liverpool has been out of the Champions League since 2010 and struggled with huge debts and an ownership crisis in recent years.
The five-times European champions reported a loss of 40.5 million pounds for their Aug. 2011 – May 2012 accounts earlier this year, with debts increasing by 21.8 million pounds to 87.2 million pounds as they look to rebuild their squad.
While Asia contributes a miniscule share of global soccer revenues, dwarfed by Europe and still well behind emerging American markets, the soccer-mad region has become a lucrative destination for touring club heavyweights to shore up their finances while connecting with local fans.
Local media estimated Manchester United and Liverpool would earn A$10 million ($9.25 million) between the clubs for their visit Down Under, with the hosting state governments kicking in multi-million dollar fees to secure the matches.
The flow-on effects for the local game, which is dominated by rival football codes Australian Rules and the National Rugby League, have encouraged soccer administrators.
“It’s exceeded our expectations,” Melbourne Victory managing director Richard Wilson told Reuters.
Victory, one of the few clubs in Australia’s fledgling A-League competition to turn a profit, stands to make about A$500,000 from Liverpool’s visit, which includes a fixed fee, sponsorship, hospitality and a small share of ticket sales.
“There’s no doubt the MCC were surprised about getting 93,000 seats sold, I think everyone thought maybe 70,000,” Wilson added, referring to the MCG’s custodians.
Politicians have also crowed about the economic impacts of the matches, with New South Wales state claiming a A$16 million windfall for hosting United, and Victoria A$10 million for welcoming Liverpool.
Liverpool’s visit would not have happened without a government subsidy, however, said Wilson, whose club has hosted Serie A giants Juventus and Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy.
“(Liverpool’s) actually been a significantly wise investment into the coffers of the Melbourne economy. Everyone’s won here,” he added.
“They’ve not always been profitable, I might add. You learn the lessons as you go along.
“Other than the straight dollars, these games’ (value), at the pointy end, is that it’s beamed around the world and it’s live on TV on Australia.”
Like Sydney, Melbourne has seen swarms of red-clad local fans mobbing Liverpool players at marketing and community events and thousands will pay A$15 each to see the team train at the MCG later on Tuesday, with proceeds going to charities.
Hundreds waved red scarves and sang the club anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” at Fed Square in Melbourne’s central business district as Liverpool players signed merchandise.
“I just love everything they stand for… family, that song,” said Paul McMaster, an office worker who bought an A$185 ticket for himself for Wednesday’s game and another three for friends. He was sanguine about the club’s lean period.
“It’s a club you support through thick and thin,” he said. “There’s promising signs ahead.”
($1 = 1.0814 Australian dollars) (Editing by John O’Brien)