March 4, and the whistle blows for the first match of yet another K League. The season of 2017 has started. The pitch is green, the players are warming up, and the fans are howling above. The scenery is the same, as it always has been for over three decades. Even after the scandals that shook the whole league last year, everything seems oddly the same. A wake-up call seems to have been silenced and where change should have stood, uncomfortable familiarity sweeps over.
Indisputably, 2016 was a painful year for the fans of K League. JeonBuk Hyundai Motors, the former champion of the 2015 season K League and the winner of the 2016 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League, has been proven to be guilty of bribing judges. Since JeonBuk was a symbolic team of Korea, the fact that they bought the judge to make preferable decisions for them was simply shameful and devastating. The fans demanded appropriate punishment and wished the league would make efforts to prevent the recurrence of the incident.
However, the discipline was far too weak from what people had expected. JeonBuk was given a nine league-point deduction and was imposed with a hundred-million-won fine. Considering the overwhelming win they had shown before, the penalty seemed almost as nothing. JeonBuk’s attitude of trying to excuse their act as if it was an individual act of their scouter, did not help in settling the furious fans down. The fans fiercely demanded a change to the corrupted league and change seemed to have been promised.
What has Changed in 2017
As expected, K League surely offered some great alterations. Laws of the game were revised and created in application of the new rules accepted in June, 2016 by the International Football Association Board (IFAB). Four big changes are planned to take effect, including a rule that clearly states that first kick-offs can be taken in any direction. There were also rules associated with judging off-sides.
The biggest change, however, is the introduction of the Video Assistance Referee (VAR) system. VAR is a system used in unclear situations when the judge cannot make a confident decision. The system helps the main judge accurately assess the situation. It seems like an effort to regain trust, a trust betrayed last year. The K League announced its test-operation in the second half of the season, and hopes it represents their will to make a fair and rigorous competition.
Although there have been several variations of rules, no systematic change has been carried out. The organizational corruption was kept silent, and complaints about the faulty disciplinary actions were ignored completely. K League has chosen to only execute superficial amendments rather than a complete structural reform. It was the same stance they had shown after Gyeongnam FC’s precedent bribery scandal of 2015. Nothing has changed since, and no fundamental change seems to be in store.
K League—No longer First in Asia
The epithet Asia’s fierce tiger does not seem to fit K League anymore. It is a time of crisis; K League is no longer first in Asia. Performance of the teams might still be top-class, but in the professional world, performance is not the priority. The league needs financial growth. In contrast to its competitors—Japan’s J League, China’s Super League, Australia’s A League— the broadcast fee, or the scale of the title sponsor, of K League has shown weak development, incoherent to their superb performance in the AFC Champions League.
According to Seo Hyung Wook, a columnist and sports commentator, the indifference about K League is the reason. No corporates seem passionate in occupying a spot as its title sponsor, and the broadcasting companies do not fight over exclusive broadcasting rights of the league. The new 4-year broadcasting fee contract signed last year with Innocean Consortium, for instance, was easily bargained for, with 26 billion won in total for all the teams of the league.
This figure, equal to 6.5 billion won per year, includes the right to broadcast not only all the games of K League, but also the Korean national team. Compared to the 260 billion won per year of Super League, the 220 billion won per year of J League, and the 50 billion won per year of A League, the figure of K League seems indeed feeble. Unlike the others, competition was what the contract of K League lacked. It seems like nobody wished to be the face of K League.
The number of spectators is also a merciless indicator of the people’s indifference. The average count for each game of K League is around eight thousand. Considering the unusually massive fandom of JeonBuk and the amount of free tickets handed out before the game, the real number might even be more embarrassing. Again, compared to its competitors’ figure, like 24 thousand per game of Super League, K League seems to be no match.
▲ Professor Lee Cheon Hee (Director, Institute for Continuing Education). Photographed by Baeg Hawon
The Defeat of Shin Moon Sun—K League’s Revolutionist
Still, the vote for K League’s new president has shed light on the league. Candidate Shin Moon Sun, a renowned commentator, and his claims for a new renaissance has intrigued a few of the electoral college. Shin’s six pledges that caused quite a sensation are as follows: immediate modification of the disciplinary system, restoration of the league’s financial integrity, reform of the profit distribution system, maximization of marketing, enhancement of broadcasting right values, and dispersion of the dictatorial power of the league’s president.
Despite the innovative pledges, Shin lost the vote, only obtaining 5 votes out of 23. Professor Lee Cheon Hee (Director of Korea University Institute for Continuing Education) interprets Shin’s failure as the lack of reality and cooperation. To Professor Lee, the pledges seemed too farfetched. They were more of an idealistic approach than the practical and realizable insight K League needed. Furthermore, regardless of the radical nature of his pledges, he refused to make compromises with the conservatives of the electoral college. Shin failed in gaining the appreciation of the electors and the public itself. Still, “Shin’s will for internal reformation was a good sign for the slow but ongoing change of the league,” evaluated Lee.
▲ Fans of FC Seoul criticizing JeonBuk’s bribary scandal. Provided by SPOTV news.
Would 2017 be the Start of Reformation?
With the appearance of revolutionists like Shin, 2017 seems to be the proper time to start an overall reformation. To maintain the teams’ competence in the international stage, systemic support from the league is needed. It is time for change and realignment. Professor Lee admits the difficulty of the current situation, but views the future to be positive. Consulting the examples of cases abroad, if K League succeeds in being reborn as a financially sound association, enhancement in the quality of the league can be truly obtained.
However, as Lee warns, mere internal reformation itself cannot be the salvation of its situation. To attract fans and sponsors, improvements in other aspects are needed. Lee especially emphasizes two changes that need to be carried out alongside the systemic reformation. He first insists the need to strengthen the notion home team to increase the sense of belonging for local fans. By connecting the teams with their hometowns, it will allow teams to attract the local community to their games, giving them a commercial boost.
In addition, infusing the professional mindset of the players, leaders, and the whole league is demanded. The players need to show their loyalty to the fans of K League; the leaders need to show more interest in the development of the league than to money; and, finally, the league itself needs to endeavor to find its identity that separates it from other leagues of Asia. With the professional mindset assured in all three groups and with the connection of the teams with their local communities, K League, without doubt, will return as an Asia’s fierce tiger.