[SPORTS VIEW]Good or bad, Citizens need to be rescued

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[SPORTS VIEW]Good or bad, Citizens need to be rescued

After a suspenseful end of the season, the professional soccer league's off-season has begun. While the players take their vacations, the management and coaches of the 10 K-League teams are in hire-fire mode, thinking strategy for next year.

All except for the Daejeon Citizens, whose survival as a franchise is in question because of financial problems. The club's revenue shortfall came to light in November when Geo-ryong Construction, its major shareholder, announced that it would give up control of the club because it could no longer meet an annual tab of about 5.5 billion won ($4.5 million) to keep the team running. A couple of weeks later the people of Daejeon and the surrounding Chungcheong provinces launched a campaign to rescue the team. They got a petition going, and said they wanted to get 1 million signatures.

Since then, they've collected half that many. Unfortunately, signatures won't keep the team alive. It needs a sponsor willing to put hard cash on the table. To replace Georyong Contruction as the team's patron, talks have been held with the Hanwha Group, which has a big presence in Daejeon and the Chungcheong provinces, and the Korea Tobacco and Ginseng Corp. But the talks went nowhere.

The city of Daejeon has suggested that a consortium of citizens and local companies take over the team. But companies are wary, saying they face an uncertain economy next year. Georyong said it would still be able to contribute to the team's operating budget; but without help from other companies the Citizens are as good as defunct.

Should the government step in and save the team? After the World Cup, the government pledged to support the creation of new professional soccer teams down the road that would be based in big cities such as Seoul or Incheon. It should forget about the future; an existing club needs help now.

To play next season the Citizens must have a new sponsor in place by the end of February. Otherwise it will be unable to schedule its preseason training, and its players might see fit to make other plans.

The Citizens have many factors working against them. They finished dead last during the regular season. Most of their players are more than 30 years old. While other teams are beefing up their rosters, eyeing free agents both domestic and foreign, the Citizens can't even promise their players that they'll be paid.

Even if a sponsor shows up, don't expect the club to turn things around next year. And the fan support? It may be enjoying a temporary burst right now, but don't be surprised if it continues to wither again soon. What will a potential sponsor do when it sees that?

The most worrisome thing is that the Citizens' problem is a structural one that if left uncorrected will continue to pop up. The business model of the league and its teams has to be rethought and overhauled. But that is another chapter that I don't have the space to address here.

Right now the Citizens are crying out for help. It looks like the government is the only savior around. And time is running out.

by Brian Lee

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