Last Saturday, Malaysia’s basketball team the Westports KL Dragons just slam-dunked its way to its first ASEAN Basketball League (ABL) championship in history. That’s right. Malaysia has a professional basketball team. And it just beat the Singapore Slingers to win the 2015-2016 ABL title. The triumph counts in more ways than one. In Malaysia, where basketball is not even among our top 10 sports, the title-sponsored Westsport KL Dragons has just won one of its sweetest victories by proving itself to the region and to its home country. On Facebook, they are crooning: “Where were you when History was Made?” At the award ceremony, head coach Ariel Vanguardia cried out to the crowd: “This win is for you, Malaysia!”
Basketball is a nascent sport in Southeast Asia. Although there are six professional teams playing in the ABL from five ASEAN countries – Thailand, Singapore, Philippines, Vietnam, and Malaysia – few know about them and their daily battle for recognition and victory. For six years now, basketball has been growing throughout the region thanks to private money going into establishing teams, recruiting talent, and putting them to the grind in a bid for some professional sporting glory. As more ASEAN countries invest in pro basketball, the sport is growing up and turning into a legitimate avenue for entertainment and athletic careers. Founded in 2009 around the same time as the ABL, the KL Dragons have gone through a lot to grow its team, its brand, and a passion for basketball in Malaysia.
The public face of sports is often fronted by athletes and the coach. Nobody thinks about the people who work full-time to market the athletes and coach to the public. In fact, when the KL Dragons was first established, it was up to the marketing team to figure out how to get a nation crazy about football and badminton to make some room in their hearts for basketball. The KL Dragons currently have two marketers, two coordinators, and one general manager. These stage managers take care of everything from public relations to booking flights and hotel rooms, and have been building up the KL Dragons since its inception – far longer than many of the athletes themselves. In this post, marketing manager Ken Yap talks to us about the joys and challenges of marketing Malaysia’s basketball team the KL Dragons since day one.
Are you a basketball player yourself?
Yeah. I love basketball. I’ve been playing ever since I was 14 so this has been a really good opportunity for me to develop basketball in Malaysia. I just love playing the game.
You’ve been with the KL Dragons ever since day one. How did it all begin for you?
I had just gotten back from grad school in Paris to have about a month or two of break, when my best friend’s sister called me up. She asked if I wanted to join a marketing team to start a professional basketball team. At first, I declined because I just wanted to enjoy my holiday and go back to do my master’s, which was what my parents wanted. But she called me up again a week later and said: “Ken, I really need somebody to help me out here. I’m doing it alone.” When a best friend’s sister says that, you have no choice. I’ve stayed on because I feel the job connects to myself as a basketball player and I feel it is fruitful to help basketball in Malaysia. My dad’s still mad at me for not completing my master’s, though.
How do you feel about being a sports marketer now?
I love basketball and used to dream of being a professional athlete. So it was a tough choice choosing between becoming a pro athlete or doing business. Being in Malaysia, though, means that your pay as a pro athlete isn’t very high. I thought it would be really fun to work with pro athletes, like how it looks when you watch the NBA. There’s somebody to do the stadiums, do the crowd. You get to run everything, which has a very fun element to it. But there are a lot of challenges too that you don’t expect until you get into it. Like building the fan base for the sport itself in a country where it’s not popular.
What’s it like to grow a brand like KL Dragons in a country where basketball is not popular?
It’s slow. Basketball is not even among the top 10 sports in Malaysia. It’s not a compulsory sport under the Sports Ministry or the Ministry of Education. So its popularity is very low. Probably only one out of ten public schools currently have a basketball court. Also, it’s often deemed as a Chinese sport in Malaysia. However, that is a false bearing. We know there are a lot of non-Chinese out there who love basketball and our attendance proves it. Our audience is currently about 40% non-Chinese. You just need more effort to reach out to them. As a brand, we have grown significantly. When we first started, we only had a following of about 2,000 people in Malaysia. Right now with our TV partnership, we have about 50,000 followers out there who have an interest in the Dragons.
What makes sports marketing so different?
Sports marketing is different in the sense that there are a lot more elements to it. You’re selling a product, but it’s not a fixed product. It’s very variable. You can have the best marketing out there but if your team does horribly, if fans absolutely hate your team, then it’s a very big challenge. With product marketing, you’re always in control of the end product. For us it’s a 50-50 chance of things turning out the way you hope for. Certain elements are just out of your control. As we say: “The ball is always round so anything can happen on court.” That’s something that is always a challenge for us. Whenever the team does poorly, your marketing has to do better.
It must be pretty challenging when your team loses…
When your team loses, you have to calm a lot of angry fans. People will definitely bash you for not doing well. The only way around it is to have a bit of PR. Focus on the team’s strengths. Let them know they’ve tried their best. It’s human nature that people will always focus on the negative side. So when the team loses, you always have to bring out the positive parts and get people to look at them. It’s like in business. You have to help people remember that failures are part of the training that leads to success.
Tell me a bit more about your marketing strategies. What sort of things do you try?
We do a lot online. For us it’s way cheaper and it’s more interactive. Basketball is very new so we get a lot of enquiries asking what is this all about. In traditional media, it can be kind of a one-way communication, as we can’t actually respond to them. What we do on the marketing end is to promote basketball more as a lifestyle event as opposed to selling it as a sports game. We usually market it as an alternative to going to shopping malls or movies or any other entertainment. This is because basketball is just not as appealing to the Malaysian market. It’s a similar challenge in Vietnam, Thailand, and Singapore. Singapore may have it a bit easier, since there are a lot of expats there.
Why as entertainment?
It’s easier to reach more people that way. Sports appeal to men a lot more in general so you would be shutting out a lot of other people. If you make entertainment a factor everyone goes for it – kids, adults, men, women. Being in a less sporty nation, you have to go with the trend. You have to go for entertainment avenues and outlets. We tried going with the sporty angle once but realised that the market is just not ready for it. Also, focusing on the game itself is a little boring if nothing is happening on the court or pitch. So often, you watch a football game for 45 minutes and nothing happens. You break for half-time and watch another 45 minutes. In basketball, we make it so that every break and half-time we play games with the audience. We bring out entertainment, dancers come out on the court to dance. It creates more communication. Fans get involved rather than just being passive viewers. You can watch any sports on television, but you have to show up in person if you want to enjoy the environment, which makes a huge difference.
Watching sports is often a male-dominated activity. Are there a lot of women at the games?
In general there are a lot more men interested in sports than women. But basketball has been more attractive to women because it’s indoors and air-conditioned. It’s also a very fast-paced game and you only have 24 seconds to make a shot at either end of the court. With football, women generally complain that it’s outdoors, sweaty, and that there isn’t a lot of action. Sometimes over 90 minutes, nothing happens and nobody scores a goal. Typically a bit boring for them. But in basketball it’s very fast-paced. We have had a lot of women coming to see our games. I would say it’s almost about 40% of our audience.
What are your other marketing challenges?
One of our biggest challenges is sponsorship. Sponsorship in Malaysia hasn’t reached a sporting nation status yet, unlike in the US where sports is a big part of everyday life. But in ASEAN and Malaysia, sports besides football aren’t a big part of people’s lives. They don’t see it as an entertainment outlet yet. The challenge is to reach out to these people and convert them. This is just not a sporting avenue, it’s an entertainment avenue. We market ourselves as a sports and entertainment avenue
How does the business of sports work? How do you make a team profitable?
You would need to have a very strong brand out there. You must be an entertainment outlet that people look to every weekend to be there. Your demand must exceed supply by at least ten to one. We have had some key learnings from the Golden State Warriors. They have ten buyers lined up for each seat in the Golden State Arena. That’s the model we want to adopt before we build our own stadium. You can’t rely on sponsorship because they go up and down. You can’t really rely on ticket sales in Malaysia as the prices are not high enough to cover team expenses. But if you do have ten people waiting for that one seat… maybe.
What about winning?
Winning doesn’t necessarily make you money. In fact, it usually means you have to spend more. That’s what happens in football in Europe. Some teams spend a lot of money on their squad just to win a trophy, but then they exceed their budget. That’s when a lot of teams get into financial trouble.
So you not only have to win games, you have to win the game of being profitable…
Winning definitely helps your team be profitable. Everyone likes to support a winning team, but in order to get everything in check you have to get everything in balance – in sports and in business.
Winning the ABL is just the cherry on the cake. The KL Dragons have their sights on a much more ambitious plan: to make basketball a part of Malaysia’s top sports. Founded in September 2009 by enthusiastic sports-loving entrepreneurs Ruben Emir Gnanalingam, Dato’ Wira Dani Daim, and Dato’ Sri Robin Tan Yeong Ching, the KL Dragons’ vision is to create a regional platform of high-performance sports and make the squad a self-sustaining professional basketball team. To achieve such a feat, the KL Dragons has been investing in facilities, infrastructure, and player development to build and create an entertainment entity around basketball.
In 2009, Ken Yap aborted his plan to pursue a master’s degree in Paris to join the KL Dragons’ marketing team. He has been with the KL Dragons for over six years now. His dad is still mad at him for quitting his master’s, but Ken regrets nothing.