Ever since the competition began in 1996, the biennial international football tournament, the AFF Championship, has always meant a great deal to the millions of football fans in Southeast Asia, arguably the continent's most passionate football region.
While it may not have the global standing of the biggest competitions in world football, the AFF Championship certainly does draw passionate supporters, massive crowds, and high viewership judging from the unprecedented figures from the recent editions.
The Crown Jewel of ASEAN Football
The AFF Championship, currently known as the AFF Mitsubishi Electric Cup from the 2022 edition onwards, is the crown jewel tournament of ASEAN football.
First played in 1996, the biennial international football competition is contested by the men's national ‘A’ teams of Southeast Asia. Over its 26-year history, the AFF Championship title have been won by four national teams thus far - Thailand has won seven titles, Singapore has four titles, Vietnam has two titles and Malaysia with one title.
This regional showpiece is a tournament which rarely fails to deliver on or off the pitch and truly captures the imagination of a region of some 680 million, around eight percent of the global population. Ask any one of these fans and they will describe the ASEAN football match experience, and the scenes, noise and passion by the raucous crowd on display at the stadiums. And it is relatable just how significant and important this regional showpiece is to them.
Qualifying for the global and continental competitions like the World Cup and Asian Cup may well be considered a distant dream for these nations, but achieving success in the AFF Championship is a challenging yet realistic target, hence it has been widely regarded as the biggest stage for the players to showcase their talents and for the football-loving fans to get behind their teams. As a result, the competition has regularly produced thrilling and dramatic games over the years, with an equally remarkable spectatorship numbers and unrivalled television ratings to match.
Back to the roots: The home and away format.
The recent 2022 edition, played from 20 December 2022 to 16 January 2023, saw the tournament return to a full home-and-away format, a decentralised approach first introduced for the 2018 edition. Instead of hosting the tournament entirely in one or two selected countries, each team plays two Group Stage games at home and two away, with the intention of allowing more supporters to attend the matches and back their national team on home soil, which in turn drove greater fan engagement for the event.
In 2018, A record total of over 750,000 spectators attended the 26 matches that were played across the 10 cities. The two-legged final between Malaysia and Vietnam drew some 130,000 spectators, with the National Stadium Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur fully packed to its 88,000 capacity, the highest attendance for a single game in history. The other cities, such as Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Cambodia and Singapore, also attracted crowds of at least 25,000 during the group stage, and the tournament enjoyed unrivalled television ratings of over 200 million viewers as well.
Viewerships are reaching new heights
Broadcast numbers of the 2020 edition has shown that the event is one of the most followed football tournament in several key Southeast Asian markets compared to global football competitions like the UEFA Euro 2020 and the FIFA World Cup 2018. With a total of 16 broadcasters, the 2020 edition brought in a record TV audience of 266 million viewers, a 28% increase compared to 2018.
Over the years, the event also had to innovate and evolve to remain relevant in their engagement with their passionate followers. To connect authentically with the regional football fans, a digital-first approach to fan engagement for the 2020 edition was implemented, with the AFF Championship website becoming the leading regional football website with 7.4 million page views and 3 million unique visitors during the 2020 edition.
The tournament’s official social media accounts also collectively amassed close to 3.5 million in followers, an increase of 61% from 2.2 million in 2018, as well as achieving 657M+ in reach. These are remarkable stats that demonstrated the massive fanbase and online community of the AFF Championship, even surpassing the likes of the continental competition AFC Asian Cup.
Uniting the region
FIFA President Gianni Infantino, who was in attendance at both 2020 and 2022 editions of the tournament, previously commented, “Our responsibility – and that of federations in the ASEAN region covering a population of 650 million people – is to bring back hope, optimism and joy through football. And this AFF Championship is a competition which unites a whole region.
"We’ve heard the figures from the AFF President (Major General Khiev Sameth) that there were over 200 million viewers in the last edition of the AFF Championship. The ASEAN region is the fifth-biggest world economy and we need to work together to make this competition and ASEAN football grow, to make it become the top of the world.”
In 2022, the AFF Championship enters its 14th edition and heralds in a brand new era – the tournament sees Mitsubishi Electric stepping into the title sponsorship role. Especially as the world starts to bounce back after two challenging years, the ultimate goal of Mitsubishi Electric, as well as AFF, for the 2022 edition was to bring the event back to prominence, reconnect and engage with the fans, and give back to the local communities through football.
The ASEAN region is the fifth-biggest world economy and we need to work together to make this competition and ASEAN football grow, to make it become the top of the world.”
Gianni Infantino, FIFA President