Monumental money losersThe FIFA World Cup last year left the world with dozens of great, even inspiring, memories, including the impressive run of the South Korean national team all the way to the semifinals.
But when it comes to tactile memories of the World Cup, nothing looms nearly as large as those 10 mammoth World Cup stadiums. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into those cavernous concrete monuments. But one year later, the state of those stadiums varies greatly from field to field.
It is nearly 9 on a Wednesday night and Seoul World Cup Stadium in Sangam-dong is very much alive. The plaza in front of the North Gate of the stadium is packed with couples strolling hand in hand and mothers pushing their baby carriages. Members of an amateur inline skating group in matching uniforms glide into the cinema on the ground floor, in defiance of a sign outside. Huge banners advertising the new multiplex cinema and the shopping mall hang over the entrance.
A 10-screen multiplex cinema and a shopping mall opened last week in the stadium. A posh wedding and banquet hall is due to open sometime next month. The competition to gain one of the 11 rental spots was steep, reportedly 6 to 1. Taking up the biggest space, Seoul World Cup Stadium’s Carrefour, the French-based superstore, was so popular on its opening day that it hurt just to be there.
“My arms got bruised just standing in the crowd because there were so many people just pressing into me. I couldn’t move my arms.” said Kim Yeh-gee, a 6th grader from a nearby elementary school.
Seoul Stadium was also the site of some major performances and concerts over the last year. The grandest artistic event was the four-night showing of Zhang Yimou’s extravagant production of Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” Earlier this year, there was also a rare outdoor concert by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Zubin Mehta. “Turandot” alone cost over 5 billion won ($4 million) to stage, but raked in nearly 70 billion won, a surprisingly successful windfall for the stadium and the producers. The stadium’s operators received 1.8 billion won for its use.
Of course, true to its original purpose, the stadium has also held a number of major soccer games, including hot exhibition games played against Brazil and Japan.
All in all, Seoul World Cup Stadium is a happening venue and busy making money. Carrefour is to pay 9.1 billion ($7.6 million) in rent annually for the next 20 years. CJ Gold Village Co. Ltd. the multiplex operator better known by the initials CGV , has signed a 15-year contract, paying 450 million won ($375,000) annually. The stadium expects to turn 10.7 billion won a year in revenues into a 3.5 billion won profit.
The Seoul stadium, however, is a rare success among the 10 soccer stadiums built for the 2002 World Cup. Today, some of the other World Cup Stadiums resemble tombs. The nine other stadiums, in Busan, Daegu, Ulsan, Suwon, Incheon, Daejeon, Gwangju, Jeonju and Seogwipo will not turn a profit this year. Four stadiums made little or no money at all this year, and it takes at least 1.7 billion won a year just to maintain the stadiums.
The possibility that these stadiums, especially in the smaller cities, could end up becoming money-eating monsters with little or no purpose was brought up from the beginning. The moderation population of the cities, the inconvenient location of the stadiums, far away from their city centers, and the lackluster condition of the Korean professional soccer league (albeit improved since the World Cup) all pointed to the difficulties these stadiums would face raising money after the World Cup was over.
The future difficulties, however, were ignored in the fervor to host the World Cup. But Japan had committed early on to building 10 new stadiums, and Korea was not about to be outdone in any aspect of the World Cup, regardless of financial sense.
Some venues, like Suwon Stadium, are struggling to get by. Despite the disadvantages posed by such a large, unwieldy structure, Suwon Stadium has managed to generate some revenue. Suwon is luckier than some other cities because it is home to the Suwon Bluewings, the professional soccer team owned by Samsung. The stadium gets 20 percent of the entrance fees to the team’s home games and rents its grounds to the team. Han Byung-do of the Suwon Stadium office said that the stadium expected to earn 2 billion won this year ― good money, but still 1 billion won short of its expenses. Stadium officials remain optimistic, though. A fitness center and a golf practice range are due to open sometime next month, and Mr. Han projects the stadium will take in 3.4 billion won next year and 3.7 billion won the year after that.
Some stadiums, however, like the one on Jeju island, don’t seem to be even trying to make ends meet. With its spectacular view of the sea and its graceful lines, the Seogwipo World Cup Stadium had been hailed as the most beautiful of all the World Cup stadiums and even one of the most attractive in the world. But like a homecoming queen who quickly discovers that beauty alone is not enough to get by on in life, the stadium has been down on its luck lately.
To the horror of the few soccer fans who visited the stadium for the semifinals of the 2002 FIFA World Cup last December, the roof of the stadium was gone, with only the skeleton remaining. Large pieces of the roof were blown off by strong winds last summer after the World Cup, and the entire roof was taken down for a major restoration job. In less than six months, the stadium had gone from a beauty queen to a candidate for reconstructive surgery.
It cost 92.7 billion won to build the 42,256-seat Seogwipo Stadium in Jeju. It takes 1.8 billion won a year to maintain it. But the stadium is not expected to earn any money this year or, it seems, for quite a while. Hope lingers on for the Jeju stadium, however, as there is talk of turning it into the second training ground for the national team. As of now, however, the Jeju Stadium has no concrete future plans.
Chae Byung-sin, a professor of city planning at Chonbuk National University, stated in a forum at the Korean Culture and Tourism Policy Institute that it would be better for the stadiums’ operators to concentrate on providing sports-related services to the public.
Investing local government money in uncertain, profit-seeking businesses could only end up making things worse, he said. He suggested that making the playing grounds more accessible to the public might be a good idea.
“It’s so sad that these stadiums aren’t being used,” said Duk-hee Sohn, a university student who is a Suwon Bluewings fan. “I think the only way not to let these stadiums become useless is to promote the K-League.”
Many experts agree with Ms. Sohn that the best way to resuscitate the stadiums would be through the K-League. This would include pairing off the 10 professional teams to the 10 World Cup stadiums and giving the team owners more say on how the stadiums should be run.
This is not as easy as it sounds, however, because some teams already have settled in smaller but more affordable stadiums, and some teams, such as the Daejeon Citizen, use the World Cup stadiums for free because they are sponsored by the city itself.
Many are wondering whether Korea should have given more thought on what to do with these stadiums once the World Cup was over. The stadiums take billions of won to maintain each year, and if they do not earn that money themselves, the taxpayer is stuck with the bill.
Just over a year ago, the vast majority of Koreans decided they were the greatest soccer fans in the world. Their attachment to soccer stadiums might continue for a long while, even after many of them stopped visiting the stadiums.
by Lim Ji-su