John Dykes, pun­dit king, says footy’s so­cial me­dia base is right here in Asia.

Esquire (Malaysia) - - CULTURE - WORDS BY ROB WAR­REN

Why has John Dykes come back to Asia? I ask him in an at­tempt to ease the in­ter­view into a gen­tle but ob­vi­ous start—and he launches into a speech that will last for al­most five min­utes without ap­pear­ing to pause for breath. All of 886 words and four min­utes, 42 sec­onds, to be pre­cise.

It is not mo­tor mouth, but there is no per­cep­tive change of gear or pace: a top-of-the-range Mercedes purring along from a stand­ing start. At the end of it, I feel that I could have left there and then: the an­swer is so com­plete and al­ready ex­ceeds the amount of space I was ini­tially asked to write!

English foot­ball’s once-most fa­mil­iar voice, face and pres­ence to Asian fans is very much back in our midst. Not just on our tele­vi­sion screens three times a week, but on our phones, tablets and Face­book pages—but never in our faces. And af­ter seven years work­ing for Pre­mier League TV in Lon­don, it’s a move that de­mands ex­pla­na­tion. Here’s the gist:

“So, I’m in the UK, I’ve got great guests in my stu­dio, and I’m close to where it’s all hap­pen­ing, but as the years went on, I be­came very con­scious—as that chan­nel is not shown in the UK— that I had no res­o­nance, no pres­ence, noth­ing that re­ally tied me to the UK apart from the fact that I’d pop into the stu­dio for the week­end and do matches, but those matches would only be broad­cast over­seas.

“My wife is Sin­ga­porean and my kids were born there so I’d come back to Sin­ga­pore—not just Sin­ga­pore, but broadly around Asia—and I recog­nised that’s where I felt most com­fort­able. And that’s where I ba­si­cally knew that the au­di­ence I was talk­ing to was here.”

Born in Es­sex, Eng­land, Dykes grew up in Hong Kong and is an old Asia hand of sorts, al­beit the an­tithe­sis of the stereo­type buf­fer. A young-look­ing 53-yearold, he loves the place—“the food, the way they do things”—as much as he does foot­ball, and his knack of com­bin­ing boy­ish en­thu­si­asm with author­ity comes across in per­son as it does on TV.

On Fox’s Sports chan­nel, he talks not at you, but to you, and makes you feel like his best mate in a pub dis­cus­sion, all at­tributes we loved when he pre­sented footy in the noughties, but even more es­sen­tial now that he’s ask­ing us to talk back to him.

“It was the im­me­di­acy that was miss­ing in Lon­don,” he said. “Go­ing onto the street and peo­ple say­ing, ‘Oh, you did this on the show, or you said that on the show.’ There was none of that. What in­ter­ests me is en­gag­ing with an au­di­ence that [in Asia], I’m very aware, is now very foot­ball lit­er­ate, very opin­ion­ated, very well versed in this whole modern in­dus­try of de­bat­ing the game whether it’s on fo­rums, on pod­casts, or what have you.

“Fox felt there was a gap in the mar­ket here that needed to be ad­dressed. There’s an au­di­ence out there that de­serves just what we’re hop­ing to give to them—which is an agenda-set­ting, provoca­tive look at the is­sues of the day in foot­ball specif­i­cally geared to en­gi­neer­ing that feed­back, build­ing a com­mu­nity, and then tak­ing that to wher­ever it goes.

“So, the idea is, we’ve got three nights a week, a tra­di­tional foot­ball show in a half-hour slot, but as you’ll have seen, we Face­book Live it, we push it to our own dig­i­tal di­men­sion, we do it through so­cial me­dia—and it’s fab­u­lous.”

He uses the word “en­gage” a lot and well he might: his show is al­ready reach­ing, to bor­row an old beer ad­vert, parts that others don’t reach.

Asia has a grow­ing pres­ence in foot­ball—the re­gion con­trib­uted al­most a third of the over­seas TV rights that amounted to GBP3.2 bil­lion of the GBP8.3 bil­lion to­tal for the Pre­mier League at the last re­newal.

But he casts doubt on whether Asia will con­tinue to be a cash cow that’s ever ready to be milked for TV rights alone: “Asia had its ma­jor jump two cy­cles ago and HK paid an ex­tra­or­di­nary amount, I don’t know if you can as­sume that Asia is just go­ing to keep on giv­ing.”

I ask him if the UK will, con­sid­er­ing the dis­il­lu­sion­ment over “ob­scene” wages and “in­sane” trans­fer fees at a time of aus­ter­ity. His an­swer is un­equiv­o­cal: “The bub­ble shows no sign of burst­ing. Com­mer­cially, they’re go­ing from strength to strength.

“I’ve sat here and said the Pre­mier League rights could level off, but I’ve no rea­son to think they ac­tu­ally will do

based on re­cent trends as they al­ways seem to find a way of kick­ing on to the next level. I’m pretty bullish about foot­ball in gen­eral, the Pre­mier League in par­tic­u­lar, but there is ac­count­abil­ity.”

I press him on whether many tra­di­tional fans feel they’re be­ing priced out in favour of “tourist sup­port­ers” (who spend more in the club shop on foot­ball pil­grim­ages). He says that ar­gu­ment, like ev­ery­thing else in the UK for that matter, is be­com­ing “politi­cised”.

“Firstly, when some­thing is as suc­cess­ful as it is, ev­ery­one wants to tear it down. The fun­da­men­tals, as mind-blow­ing and stag­ger­ing as they might be, do ap­pear to be sup­port­ive of what in some peo­ple’s eyes is ridicu­lous trans­fer fees. Foot­ball is [in a] safe [place] right now. Yes, I’m bullish about it and I don’t see why you shouldn’t be.”

I put it to him that on a re­cent trip to

the UK, I met hard-core fans who re­acted to play­ers’ salaries and fees with the same dis­dain they re­served for bankers’ bonuses—the ex­tra dig­its fly­ing over un­com­pre­hend­ing and shak­ing heads. And the com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, I was told, felt like tam­per­ing with the clubs’ DNA. But he’s not buy­ing that ei­ther.

“It’s not just about kids kick­ing a ball about with jumpers for goal­posts any more. As much as you want to ro­man­ti­cise that, it has be­come this spec­tac­u­lar in­dus­try that cap­ti­vates all of us.

“You only have to look at the re­sponse to that first week­end. The an­tic­i­pa­tion ahead of it, the en­joy­ment dur­ing it, and the in­cred­i­ble chat­ter af­ter­wards. The Pre­mier League comes back and ev­ery­one is talk­ing about it—there can’t be much wrong with it.

“When I was grow­ing up, you’d be happy to look down a pa­per and find

a lit­tle side­bar about your team. Now you can go online and spend half a day read­ing about it. And de­bat­ing it, and then get­ting on to your friends on so­cial me­dia; that whole side of sport has just ex­ploded.

“There’s a lot of noise and we’re try­ing to help peo­ple be a lit­tle bet­ter in­formed and more se­lec­tive about where they go for their in­for­ma­tion and how they go about it.”

Has pun­ditry it­self changed? “To­day, you can get found out so badly. I heard an ex-eng­land cricket cap­tain once get chal­lenged on TV: ‘Why should you do that?’ And he said, ‘Be­cause you should.’ You can’t get away with that sort of thing any­more.”

Not that Dykes would ever dream of say­ing such a thing. Least of all un­der the new, in­ter­ac­tive for­mat. Welcome home, Mr EPL.

Ian Wright, for­mer Arse­nal player, John Dykes, foot­ball pun­dit, Ma­mady Sidibe, for­mer Stoke player, and Gra­ham Stu­art, for­mer Ever­ton player, are in­ter­viewed on the ra­dio to pro­mote the Bar­clays Asia Tro­phy 2015 on May 12, 2015 in Sin­ga­pore.

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