It may not know it yet but Indonesian football stands at the dawn of a new era.
Recent years have seen local government withdraw funds from the game, while legislation has cut off vital funding from tobacco sponsorship. The recent decision to postpone the start of the 2015 Indonesia Super League season came in part because the Professional Sports Council of Indonesia was concerned over the number of clubs not paying players’ salaries.
Football needs to embrace a new age, and with the odd exception it is painfully ill-equipped to do so. Too many clubs are happy to sit back and whine about how they have no money and how life isn’t fair to them, but very few have shown any initiative to change that paradigm. Persib Bandung, and to a lesser extent Arema, are breaking the mould, but they are still the exception rather than the rule.
The Indonesian match-day experience is a struggle. Access to a stadium can be difficult and facilities inside are often non-existent. Thousands of fans buy drinks and peanuts from informal vendors working the terraces and stand, while outside other sellers offer a variety of T-shirts and scarves for the die-hards. It is all very haphazard and, to be brutally honest in these cash-strapped times, an opportunity lost.
When it comes to selling the game, the Thais are way ahead of the rest of Southeast Asia; much like they are on the field at club and international level.
Take, for example, Bangkok Glass, a privately owned football club located just north of the capital. It joined the Thai Premier League in 2009 when it took over Krung Thai Bank Football Club, and since then has worked extremely hard to compete on and off the field in a league where big-hitters Muang Thong United and Buriram United dominate.
In the 2014 TPL season, Bangkok Glass averaged 6,500 fans at its home games; above average by Thai standards but falling short of middling Indonesian teams like Persela Lamongan (10,000) and Gresik United (9,300). But when it comes to engaging with fans and making fans feel they belong to the football and the club belongs to them, Bangkok Glass is streets ahead.
A Bangkok Glass fan can wake up on match day, log on to the club’s website and book their ticket online. With a few hours to kickoff they can arrange to meet their mates at Rabbits BGFC Bar and Restaurant, a short drive from the tidy Leo Stadium.
After snacking at the Bangkok Glass-themed diner, perhaps sparing a few moments to read the Rabbits monthly magazine packed with news and interviews with players, fans can then head to the stadium where the club shop awaits the faithful while sponsors and vendors fill the car park, offering supporters the chance to sample their wares. As they wait for kickoff, fans can even listen to Bangkok Glass radio, streamed off the website.
This being Thailand, food is never far away, and fans are able to snack during the game from a number of stalls located inside the stadium.
It helps, of course, that the club is part of Bangkok Glass, a private company. That means it can tap into a culture that embraces marketing and investment, and it shows. Watching a Bangkok Glass game is an all-embracing experience that keeps the fan, and their wallet, at the center of the day; and judging by the number of fans wearing replica T-shirts on the terraces, it is a philosophy they’re happy to buy into.
For a long time Thai football was little more than a series of initials. Match day would see SET play BBC while RTA clashed with TFB. And while the national team produced good results in Asean competition, fans struggled to relate to the domestic league and stayed away. Clubs like Chonburi, Muang Thong United and Bangkok Glass came in and changed the game. For the first time people were investing in football clubs and marketing their teams and the fans responded.
Thai football may lack the history, traditions and rivalries of the game in Indonesia, but when it comes to selling the game to supporters there is no doubt that Indonesian clubs, struggling to adapt to the new financial realities, have much to learn.
That first lesson can come from match day at Bangkok Glass.