For the K-League, soccer passion dries upEven when the World Cup games started at 4 a.m., hundreds of thousands of red-clad Koreans crowded the streets around the country to cheer on the national team.
They have not shown much enthusiasm, however, for the return of the domestic K-League.
In the first half of the season, the K-League is averaging 9,145 soccer fans per game, about 2,000 fewer than last season. But can the league blame only the fans for not showing up?
“I live in Bundang, [Gyeonggi province], and I occasionally go to Seongnam Ilhwa games,” wrote Eom Tae-yeon, on online soccer community www.runsoccer.com. “But you can hardly see banners advertising games on streets. It’s not that people have zero interest in the K-League, but they have limited opportunities to get to know it.”
The writer added, “neither the franchises nor their corporate title sponsors seem intent on keeping fans from losing touch with the K-League because there aren’t many events that could stimulate more fan interest in their local clubs.”
Experts who have written about it online say the issue can be resolved in a variety of ways, from better marketing by teams to allowing more foreign players per team.
The JoongAng Daily spoke to several soccer fans, online and offline, about the situation.
Park Seung-hoon, a soccer fan who is a frequent visitor to online soccer community Web sites, said the media should run more stories or television features on up-and-coming stars and teams should market their star players better.
As an example, consider the phenomenon of Park Chu-young, forward for FC Seoul and the national team.
In 2004, Park was voted Young Player of the Year by the Asian Football Confederation. In 2005, at the Qatar Eight-Team Tournament, he scored nine goals in four games to lead Korea to the title.
Later that year, he joined FC Seoul and quickly rose to the elite ranks, scoring 12 goals in 19 K-League games, second most in the league, and winning the Rookie of the Year award.
The so-called “Park Chu-young effect” lifted FC Seoul’s attendance. The Korea Professional Football League reported that during the 2005 season, FC Seoul’s average attendance with Park in the lineup was 27,465, but when he didn’t play, it was 15,545.
Other teams also benefited from Park’s presence. When Gwangju Sangmu FC hosted FC Seoul last year, the attendance was 21,307, almost three times the team’s average.
His popularity was helped in large part by the media’s hailing of Park as the next big thing in Korean soccer. Major TV stations ran documentaries on his amateur career, and he had endorsement deals in place before his first professional game.
But many other emerging young players, such as Baek Ji-hoon, Park’s teammate on both FC Seoul and the national squad, and other national team players, Cho Won-hee and Kim Do-heon, who have not come under the spotlight as much.
Park Seung-hoon, a soccer fan from Gyeonggi province, said, “If young players are reported more through the media, I think more fans will try to see them in person in stadiums.”
Park also pointed out that local sports newscasts don’t give much exposure to the K-League, compared to foreign leagues in which Koreans are playing.
“When I watch sports news on television, I get longer highlights on English Premier League’s Manchester United [where Korean Park Ji-sung plays] than K-League teams,” he said. “The K-League highlights of some five or six games are often shorter than the Manchester clips, even if Park didn’t play in the game.”
Some fans suggested solutions to the crowd problems. Oh Sul-ki, a registered member of fan community site www.soccerline.co.kr, said the K-League and Japan’s J-League should be merged to generate more interest by playing on the traditional rivalry between Korea and Japan.
As unlikely as the scenario may seem, such a drastic measure just might be the shot in the arm the Korean league needs.
“If a team that represents my hometown plays a Japanese team, then I will definitely cheer for that team more passionately [than now],” Oh said.
Others also raised the issue of the broadcasting situation. In 2001, the league signed the Korea Broadcasting System to a five-year contract to give the state-run station exclusive rights to carry K-League games.
Most of the games, though, are carried through Sky KBS, the cable affiliate of KBS, leaving in the dark a large number of fans without cable.
KBS has sold rights to some games to rival Seoul Broadcasting System, as the contract allows it to do.
However, SBS has televised games mostly on tape delay, whereas some English Premier League games, especially ones featuring Koreans Park Ji-sung and Tottenham Hotspur’s Lee Young-pyo, are televised live despite the eight-hour time difference.
“If regional stations would carry at least one game a week live, it would be a great improvement from the current situation,” said Moon Chang-hwan, a 19-year-old university student in Incheon. “I think it’s ridiculous that soccer games are on tape and three major stations [KBS, SBS, and Munhwa Broadcasting Corp.] carry the same baseball game live.”
So the fans have spoken, and the bottom line remains rather simple.
“For now, more active marketing and wider TV coverage is the answer,” said 19-year-old computer programmer Kang Dong-hyun in Seoul.
by Hyun Gyu-heon