What's in a name?
Asia was agog. Sports announcers breathlessly relayed the news, internet forums crashed under the weight of traffic, advertising executives cut short lunch breaks, shirts were ordered by the thousand and city zoos were ready for sponsorship deals with certain big cat enclosures. The creaking was heard around the world as millions of football allegiances shifted simultaneously. Everything changed when Hull City changed their name to Hull City Tigers.
That's a bit harsh for a solid English club with close links to the local community. Fans didn't ask for a rebranding even if it was done by a businessman whose wealth helped turn the team's fortunes around. There may be some willing to suspend their distaste if there is a promise of future benefit for the club but in terms of Asia, and let's be honest, the world's largest continent is usually the target of such moves, it is a promise that is not going to be fulfilled. Few clubs have made inroads into the eastern market. There are no pots of gold along the old Silk Road.
The rebranding may have been big news in East Riding but has gone unnoticed in East Asia. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out why. Hull don't exactly have a high profile in England, never mind Thailand. Some Asian fans may have a passion for the English or European game but if the owner of the club believes that sticking 'Tigers' on the end of the name will result in legions of new followers, it is almost insulting.
Yet that's nothing to how many local fans, the ones who actually pay their money to support the club through thick and thin, must feel. It's hard to know which is more shocking to the sensibilities: a change of name or a change in colours but perhaps Hull followers can compare with their Cardiff counterparts when they meet in the coming season. A year ago, the Bluebirds were in the news after owner Vincent Tan, a Malaysian businessman, switched the shirt from blue to red in a bid to appeal to fans in Asia.
It is a depressing sign of the times that the two automatically promoted clubs from the Championship have meddled with something fundamental in their local identities in the pursuit of for money from overseas. Instead of the thrilling feeling of planning trips to Old Trafford, Anfield and the Emirates, fans are engaged in divisive debates on the actions of owners. There used to be a time when teams that came up focused on survival and, hopefully, a little more than that. These days, it is not just about doing battle with the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea on the pitch, they are also aiming to compete off it too. It's not so much a case of trying to run before they can walk but trying to sell before they can talk.
Red may be an important colour and the tiger may be an important symbol in South-east and East Asia but they don't really matter when it comes to football. The other stuff is more important. It is why Fulham toured South Korea in 2008 and played in almost-empty stadiums while Manchester United came a year later and played in front of 66,000 in Seoul. Both teams were Premier League, both brought Korean players with them (Fulham even had a Korean sponsor, a big reason why they signed a player from the same country ) but one was a world famous club with years of success and English and European titles while the other was not.
Those fans in Asia that follow European teams overwhelmingly follow the giants, the trophy-winning, Champions League-participating elite. Chelsea have gone from being almost unknown at the turn of the century to one of the big boys who play in front of sell-out crowds in Bangkok, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur because of the star players and the English and European titles they have delivered.
The arrival of a star from the east will raise a team's profile with increased exposure in the player's homeland -- though the excited talk of thousands of shirts sales does not reflect reality. Cardiff have Korean international Kim Bo-Kyung. He will get the team in the newspapers and the games on television which can lead to sponsorship opportunities. Bolton had limited success with this with Lee Chung-Yong though West Brom, who signed midfielder Kim Doo-Hyun, tried and failed to find a Korean sponsor. It is not easy. Reading, Everton, West Brom, Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Wigan Athletic are all clubs that have signed East Asian stars at various points over the last decade yet these teams are not held in any special esteem.
The commercial success of Park Ji-Sung and Shinji Kagawa at Manchester United, the club more than any other that succeeds in the Asian market, stems from the national pride that fans and media feel when their stars play for one of the biggest clubs in the world and then challenge for trophies. And play is the operative word. Without minutes on the pitch, interest quickly wanes and can even turn into something negative: Arsenal's treatment of Park Chu-Young did not go down well in South Korea and Japanese fans were not exactly enamoured with Bayern Munich signing and then not selecting Takashi Usami.
Only time will tell if Cardiff and Hull will reap the rewards for their decisions but if they really want to make commercial inroads into Asia they would have been better off focusing their energies on establishing themselves in the Premier League in the short-term with a view to challenging for the title in the medium-term. A tall order for sure but still considerably easier than becoming a force in the markets of the Asia without becoming a force on the fields of Europe and they wouldn't have annoyed a large percentage of their local support, the ones who actually buy the season tickets and the shirts, along the way.