Interest in K-League on the wane as South Korea hope for World Cup success
The weekend of April 13 and 14 will live long in the memory of South Korean football fans for all the wrong reasons.
A total of just 18,000 people in the country attended the six games in the K-League, with five of the tournament's biggest teams at home. Less than 2,000 came to see Ulsan Hyundai Horangi, Asian champions in 2012, take on FC Seoul. Just 3,000 were at Suwon Samsung Bluewings, a club that attracted regular crowds of 25,000 in the previous decade, with one of the best atmospheres in Asian football.
Talk to K-League officials off the record and they are full of dire predictions about the future of Asia's oldest professional football league. How did this happen in a country that is by some measures - -in terms of World Cups and continental club championships -- the envy of Asia.
The majority of teams are owned by big business such as Samsung, Hyundai and POSCO, removing the incentive for clubs to market themselves aggressively. Building close ties with local communities, as is the case in Japan, in order to sell tickets and expand fanbases was never a priority as losses were covered. Attitudes have changed a little but time and opportunities have been wasted.
The most common accusation against the league is that the football is boring. Most K-League teams play in a similar way: reactive, physical, defensive and counter-attacking with too many of the same old conservative coaches producing slow football. Many games don't open up until the last 15 to 20 minutes and while there have been more goals of late, the reputation has been forged over a number of years.
When forgettable fixtures are played in front of low crowds, often rattling around huge cavernous 2002 World Cup stadiums that lie on the edge of cities and are hard to get to, neither action nor atmosphere will tempt people back. It doesn't look good on television either and the league struggles to bring in broadcasting revenue.
The 2011 match-fixing scandal didn't help, with over 50 ex-players and coaches indicted of accepting money to rig results. The K-League responded with excellent measures aimed at preventing a repeat and is aggressive in terms of trying to root out the disease. Nevertheless, it was a sorry saga.
League authorities are aware of the major issues and have tried to shake things up. In 2012, promotion and relegation arrived. A year later, the number of teams in the league was reduced from 16 to 12 and a Scottish-style split introduced in the latter stages of the season with a view to making games more meaningful at both ends of the table. There have also been various measures to encourage teams to keep the ball in play more to produce a faster flow of football. There were short-term spikes but in the long-run, it hasn't worked.
Attempts were also made to tap into Korea's cultural popularity in the Southeast Asian market. There was excitement in Vietnam when one of the country's biggest stars Luong Xuan Truong signed for Incheon United in 2016. The skilful midfielder played a handful of games there before heading to Gangwon and suffering a similar fate. The player, creative and exciting, has talked of Korean prejudice when it comes to the merits of Southeast Asian footballers and more forward-thinking and open-minded coaches may have been able to use his undoubted talents in a much more effective way. Vietnamese interest soon faded.
It's not all doom and gloom. While excitement may be lacking, there is strength from top to bottom. The league is by far the most successful in Asia in terms of club championships won. No less than six different Korean teams have lifted the continental title a total of 11 times, more than the next two most successful countries, Japan and Saudi Arabia, combined. There is also a drive towards more useful stadiums than the World Cup arenas with Daegu FC joining Incheon in building much smaller, intimate and accessible arenas.
The league is still a fine breeding ground for young talent. It is tough and if you can shine there you can do so anywhere in the world. It helped the national team qualify for a ninth successive World Cup, quite an achievement and a run that only five countries can beat. At the end of the 2002 World Cup when the co-hosts reached the last four, fans held up a famous banner that read "CU@K-League." And they came in huge numbers. It didn't last, though, with the opportunity not built upon. The league would love for a good run in Russia.
If the Taeguk Warriors achieve major success this summer, it may have some effect on the domestic league and the present band of administrators will be ready to pounce on any potential benefit. The possible addition of Tottenham's Son Heung-Min in a couple of years as the star comes home for military service will also help but in the long-term, the K-League has work to do in order to return to the nation's affections.
Asian expert John Duerden is the author of Lions and Tigers: Story of Football in Singapore and Malaysia.Twitter: @JohnnyDuerden.