Delay to start of 2020 season means serious financial woes for K League

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Delay to start of 2020 season means serious financial woes for K League

With so much uncertainty surrounding the start of the new season, Korean professional football clubs have found themselves in some difficult financial situations.

No matches obviously means no gate receipts, but there’s so much more that affects the 12 teams in the top-flight K League 1 and 10 more teams in the second-tier K League 2. Fans are calling these teams about canceling their season tickets, and no one is buying up luxury box seats. And on the other side of the ledger, teams are already paying players their salaries.

The 2020 K League 1 season was slated to kick off on Feb. 29, but the coronavirus outbreak forced the league to postpone the start indefinitely. League and team officials didn’t even begin discussing their new fixtures until Monday this week. They’ve agreed in principle to shorten the season from 38 matches to as few as 32 matches, but they have not yet settled on the new start date.

With so much uncertainty, clubs said they’re having trouble securing corporate sponsors for the new season.

“All negotiations with potential sponsors have stopped,” said one marketing staffer at a K League 1 club. “Companies haven’t told us yet that they’ll pay us less than planned, but if we have a shorter season, I think it’s inevitable we’ll get less money from them.”

Another marketing official from a different K League 1 team said his team was fortunate enough to get some sponsorship deals done before the coronavirus started wreaking havoc.

“The important thing now is to make sure these sponsors stay on board,” the official said. “We’re keeping an eye on their situation.”

While many teams have the backings of corporate giants, some teams in the K League are owned by the regional government of their home city. Their concern, according to the general manager of one such team, is that their local governments are so caught up with quarantine efforts that football has been pushed to the back burner. The spread of the virus has also led to an increase in quarantine-related costs, meaning there may not be much left in the local coffers to go around for other activities, such as football.

The virus hit the K League at an inopportune time, as both divisions enjoyed a substantial increase in attendance last year compared to 2018.

Teams that sold out season tickets this time a year ago are fielding calls about cancellations or partial refunds in the highly likely event that the season will be shortened.

“We’ve stopped selling season tickets for now,” one K League 1 club employee said. “We’re prepared to offer our current ticket holders some refunds, depending on the length of the season.”

A staff for another K League 1 team said he hasn’t received any inquiries about luxury suites. The team’s parent company and its affiliates used to scoop up those expensive tickets and hand them out to their clients. But with businesses struggling nationwide, purchasing those tickets is just the kind of luxury that companies don’t need.

Then there are the player contracts. K League players’ contracts don’t include a force majeure clause, which would allow clubs to cut players’ wages in case of an extraordinary event beyond their control, such as war, natural disasters or plague.

While some big names in European football have offered to take a pay cut to support their clubs during the pandemic, no K League stars have stepped up with such a move.

And unless players volunteer, teams can’t legally force them to take less money.

“The player salary is a sensitive matter, and I don’t think any club can take any preemptive action,” one K League 1 club official said. “There has to be some consensus across the entire league first.”

An employee of another K League 1 club said: “These players have been training since the start of the year, and it’s hard to slash their salaries. We haven’t sent them home yet, and so we have to keep paying them.”

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