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-year-old, 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.
This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Malaysia October 2017.