Players from South Korea's Gyeongnam FC at a training session in Changwon, South Korea, on March 4, 2019. Many teams are playing to near-empty stadiums. Photo: AFP

It may lag behind Europe and Latin America, but East Asia is a competitive region in global football. Chinese Super League clubs have been some of the biggest spenders in the world in recent years, snagging Brazilian stars such as Oscar, Hulk and Paulinho.

Japan’s J.League signed a $2 billion, 10-year online broadcasting deal in 2016 and is home to European legends such as Andres Iniesta and Lukas Podolski. Not so in South Korea. There, the top local talent that doesn’t make it to Europe heads to its neighbors, rather than staying at home.

This is remarkable – for on the pitch, South Korea is Asia’s most successful football nation. The boys in the red shirts have appeared at more World Cups than any other Asian nation and have gone further in the tournament than any other side, while the country’s clubs have been Asian champions more than any other.

But off the pitch, the K-League, which kicked off its 2019 season last week, is struggling to stay relevant.

Local disinterest

Attendance figures illustrate the extent of the problem. Ten years ago, more than 11,000 fans turned up to watch a K-League game. Last season, the figure was barely 5,000 – the lowest yet after years of decline. Adding to the problem is that many matches take place in giant stadia designed for tens of thousands.

“As players, it is strange to play in front of a few thousand, sometimes only a few hundred, people in a stadium that can hold 40,000-50,000,” said Dejan Damjanovic, a Montenegrin striker with the Suwon Samsung Bluewings, who has scored more goals than any other foreign player in the league. “It is simple: football is much better with fans.”

The league’s high point was probably in the aftermath of the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by Korea and Japan. The national team surprised the world and thrilled the nation by reaching the last four. In the final game of that legendary summer, fans unfurled a famous banner that read: “C U @ K-League.”

For a while, they did. The Cup fever spilled into league games and the massive stadia – built for the global tournament rather than for local games, and often built at the edge of cities and hard to get to – were full.

Those heady days marked one of the few times when Korean football was clearly ahead of Korean baseball in the national view. No longer. Baseball, with greater promotion from television and media, has reclaimed the top spot.

“Apart from a few periods that followed a major highlight, like a good World Cup, the K-League has never been on top of the sports market in Korea,” said Seo Hyung-wook, a football commentator for MBC television. “Only international football has flourished.”

Football officials have long tried to convert a love for the national team into a love for the national game. So far, they have failed.

Few fans …

The K-League kicked off in 1983, with the country’s biggest conglomerates, including Samsung and Hyundai, owning the biggest clubs and providing welcome financial stability over the years.

However, this model has reduced the necessity of building close ties with local communities, as has been the case in Japan. There have been shock shifts. LG moved its club from Anyang, a satellite town of Seoul, into Seoul proper, in 2004. SK Communications did the same, overnight, from Bucheon, another Seoul dormitory town, to the island of Jeju off the south coast.

There have been no major relocations since, but the damage was done; the episodes demonstrated that local fans were unimportant.

Of the 12-league clubs in the top tier, a number belong to local metropolitan areas. The likes of Incheon United and Seongnam FC are owned and financed by the cities themselves. In theory, this should lead to engagement with the communities, but this does not seem to have happened in any meaningful way. The issue of attracting more fans to stadiums remains.

“Nobody knows the solution,” Seo added. “Nobody can answer the question as to how the K-League can solve the problem. We’ve just tried various ways that could potentially help the K-league. No answer has come yet.”

A massive match-fixing scandal of 2011 was a huge problem, but also an opportunity. Fans and media were shocked when more than 50 players and coaches, past and present, were charged with rigging results.

As a result, the league worked hard to restructure the competition. The number of teams in the top tier was reduced in a bid to increase quality and promotion, and relegation to and from a new second tier introduced. Clubs were encouraged to become more professional in terms of administration, marketing and general operations. In fact, a contributing factor for the drop in attendances was that clubs had become more accurate in reporting crowd figures.

But fundamental issues remain.

“The problem for those of us who are not fanatics, is that when the crowds are small in a big stadium then the atmosphere seems flat, so people who do come for the first time, don’t come again,” said Seoul fan Kim Myung-min. “If the games are exciting then that can be okay, but there are too many games that are nothing special.”

Kim pointed to the similarity in the play of many Korean coaches. “Most follow the same pattern and are cautious; they counter-attack and are more focused on running fast and the physical side of the game,” he said. “There needs to be more variety. Baseball fans say the K-League is boring and if you are a casual fan of football, it may feel that way.”

… and minimal money

The lack of fans not only makes it harder to attract more people, but also means that broadcasters are not beating down the door to show games. There are no $200 million-a-year deals, as seen in Japan: The league receives roughly $6 million from television per year.

Yet despite the issues, Korean teams remain strong.

In 2018 Suwon finished sixth in the league but reached the last four of the Asia Champions League where the team was narrowly defeated by eventual winner Kashima Antlers of Japan.

“Standards are still high as you can see in the Champions League where Korean teams are always in the semi-finals or finals,” Damjanovic added. “With more fans in the stadiums however, everybody would enjoy it more – fans and also us, the players.”

Identifying the problem is a major step and while more money, more investment and smaller stadiums would help, there is only one way for sustained success: attracting fans.

But it is not easy to lure people to matches in Korea where consumers are demanding, have limited attention spans and have multiple leisure options. “Clubs are trying,” said Seo. “They know that attendance is the biggest problem.”

“Some clubs are better than others but all need to really get involved with their communities and help communities become involved with the clubs,” added Kim. “It takes time, hard work and passion but in the long-term, it is the only way.”

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