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Retrieving the Glorious Days of the K-League
Choi Ye Ho  |  yehosky@korea.ac.kr
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승인 2019.05.06  04:51:07
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A new stadium for Daegu Football Club (FC), DGB Daegu Bank Park, opened on January 19, thanks to the ardent support from its fans. The new home for Daegu FC was the masterpiece of Cho Kwang-rae, the president of Daegu FC. He kept stressing the necessity of a smaller stadium for the team, since the former Daegu stadium was oversized and could not capture the excitement of the matches. Cho’s suggestion seems to be working out exceptionally well, as the tickets for the first three games at the new stadium were sold out within a few minutes. Due to such popularity, unprecedented in its history, K-League is beginning to thrive more.
 
   
▲ Poster of the Super-Match
 
As Korea’s professional soccer league, K-League has been rising to many people’s attention. A lot of soccer fans attend the matches to cheer for their teams. According to the International Federation of Football History & Statistics (IFFHS), K-League has been the best professional soccer league in Asia since 2011. Given this fact, it is reasonable to believe that K-League is enjoyed by a lot of soccer fans. However, the reality does not seem to fit with this expectation.

0.09 Percent — The Harsh Reality of the K-League

The data of the National Statistical Office (NSO) shows that the number of K-League spectators had been falling since 2011, right after the national soccer team’s impressive performance in the 2010 South Africa World Cup. Yet, apart from that, the number of spectators has not caught up with the increasing number of soccer teams—broadening the gap between the total seats available and actual audience attendance. This situation caused the occupancy rate of K-League seats to stay at only 25 percent, while the Korean professional basketball league (KBL) showed a rate of about 50 percent.

Another miserable fact is the record low television (TV) viewing rate of the Super-Match last season — 0.09 percent. Super-Match is a nickname for the match between FC Seoul and the Suwon Samsung Bluewings, the two hottest rivals in Korea’s football community. Since the Super-Match is considered one of the finest labels of all-time in K-League history, such a rating seemed to be a disaster for the entire league. On the day when the Super-Match recorded this shocking rate, a professional baseball match between the Nexen Heroes and the KIA Tigers recorded a viewing rate of 1.6 percent, which was about 18 times higher than that of the Super-Match.

About a decade ago, soccer and baseball were in exact opposite positions. The successful 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup became the trigger for great success for the K-League. The average attendance per match of K-League in 2002 was 14,651, while that of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) baseball league was 4,825. Soccer was literally a national sport at that time. Despite the league’s high reputation, people’s interest in soccer gradually subsided. According to NSO, the average attendance per match recorded by K-League was 7,157 in 2012 and got even worse in 2017, when it recorded 6,502, a drop of approximately 10 percent.

Soccer Versus Baseball

Currently, the professional baseball league is one of the most successful sports leagues in Korea. Given other countries’ circumstances, in which soccer is far more popular among the public, it is hard to understand the predominance of baseball over soccer in Korea. According to the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), there are 211 nations that are registered with the association while only 76 nations are registered with the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC). It seems that such contrasting popularity in Korea can be attributed to several factors.

Despite its complicated rules, baseball attracts millions of spectators. The fundamental reason for this seems to lie in the identity of the fans. All baseball teams in Korea are based in their own cities. Therefore, the fans of such teams are able to give firm support for their teams. “Strong fandom has been formed in KBO Lea gue teams through people’s passionate support for their regional teams in their cities. On the contrary, such a system of having a team based in its city has not been strongly fixed in other sports leagues in Korea ,” explained Professor Lee Jong-Sung (Department of Sports Industry, Hanyang University). K-League is no exception to such a phenomenon. For instance, FC Seoul moved its base city from Anyang to Seoul, which eventually discouraged their fans.

Moreover, efficient promotional strategies helped the growth of the baseball league. Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) did not miss an opportunity when the Korean national baseball team won a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics and advanced to the semifinals in the 2009 World Baseball Classics (WBC). KBO worked hard to transfer the heightened interest in baseball to the professional baseball league. Baseball stadiums have transformed themselves into so-called multicomplex spaces and social venues where novice spectators can also enjoy the games by participating in creative events using the electronic scoreboard. Baseball stadiums are not only for viewing the actual game, but also for social gatherings where favorite snacks can be shared among friends.

K-League – Where to Go?

Just as baseball seized an opportunity after big championships, K-League seems to be trying to draw the public’s attention by making the best use of people’s interests in the Korean national soccer team. The promotional teams of many K-League teams are developing events in which spectators can participate. Such efforts could indeed assist in forming a firm base of fandom. Nevertheless, in order to establish sustainable success, fanmarketing should not be the only solution for the difficulties of the K-League.

Professor Lee said, “in order to attract more investment and spectators, it is necessary for the league to improve its athletic performance, even if it could take longer than other strategies.” Improving the quality of games seems to be the ultimate, long-range goal of K-League. Professor Lee also stressed that publicly owned clubs should play a greater role in K-League than before because investment in company owned clubs is recently decreasing. He suggested a naming rights strategy for the stadiums as a new method for the future profit of publicly owned clubs.

“Professional sports leagues provide leisure opportunities for citizens which could contribute to the nation’s economy,” added Professor Lee. Furthermore, professional sports leagues have the advantage that they make members of a society feel connected to each other. Through the efforts of many people, it would be a grand sight to see the packed stadiums of the K-League as it once did in the recent past.
 
   
▲ Professor Lee Jong-sung
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