Welcome to another edition of Korean Football Reform. After looking through the comments and getting feedback on Twitter, I realized there are still some unanswered questions from last week’s column. It was just too large of a topic to devote only one column to it. So, for the next couple weeks I will be taking some time to break down the attendance issue into some more detailed areas for examination. Before I get to the meat of this column, a really interesting question came up that I wanted to poll you guys on. One reader commented that he knew little about the corruption scandal in 2011 that caused a sharp drop in attendance. So I wondered if I had glossed over the issue too much. Here’s a poll question for you guys:
Alright, now I think we are ready to get to the main topic of this article: community engagement and marketing. Keno made a great comment last week addressing this very issue and I’d like to share it. He was talking about some of the successes MLS made in their approach to building fanbases:
Also, their marketing and sales strategy is pretty aggressive and still probably isn’t as effective as it could be. They also partner with local soccer pubs and USMNT fan clubs to tap into the soccer fanatics as well. Clubs in Korea should follow this example, but I doubt they do.
For me at least, the comparison to MLS is very apt in that one could argue that community engagement and marketing are where K League clubs struggle the most.
Do Koreans know about the K League?
This is the question that should get to the heart of the issue when we’re talking about poor attendance at K League matches. The answer to it, for the most part, has to lean towards no. For those fans packing the supporters section at the Big Bird every week to watch the Bluewings, clearly they do know about the K League and very much love the league and their club. However, many other clubs struggle to build this kind of fanbase and end up with a very lukewarm atmosphere at their matches as a result of this. I read a very good translated piece on the 48 Shades of Football blog recently that talked about how K League has always had kind of a niche following in Korea where there are diehards, but not a mainstream interest in the league (here’s the link to that article: Nonetheless, It’s K-League!) While I wouldn’t be unrealistic and hope to see K League attendance numbers like what we see in Europe, one of the comments from last week provided a solid benchmark for the K League to aspire to. Hipster Football commented that seeing the K League average 15k spectators would be a success compared to where we are now. That’s a great goal to have and the first step for the K League would be to recover average attendance to the pre-2011 levels of around 10k per match.
How can we do this?
When you look at the leagues that the K League directly competes with, the CSL (China) and the J1 League (Japan), there is a clear difference in attendance. The CSL averaged 23,766 fans per match and the J1 League averaged 18,883 fans last season. The K League’s average? 6,505. The CSL and J1 League have employed different approaches to achieve these numbers and it’s worth looking at what the leagues are doing right. The CSL’s aggressive acquisition of foreign stars is really helping the league compete with the interest in European leagues amongst Chinese football fans. The CSL has pushed to bring in European stars to attract fans to their stadiums and it is paying off. On the other hand, the J1 League has employed good community engagement and marketing acumen to build large fanbases and generate good television ratings. In fact, the J1 League has a lucrative broadcast deal with DAZN that has certainly helped expand the reach of the league.
Which approach should the K League try to implement in their push to improve attendance? As I argued last week, I do not see the CSL approach of attracting European stars ever really working for the K League in its current form. The K League is currently balanced between clubs owned by large conglomerates (Samsung, Hyundai, POSCO, GS Group, SK Energy, and E-Land) and clubs operated by the local governments. The clubs owned by conglomerates will naturally have more money to spend on foreign players and that is evident in the difference in salaries between a club like Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC and Incheon United FC (yes, I picked them because they’re my favorite team). As a result, openly encouraging the league to add more foreign player spots to bring stars to the clubs and fans to the matches will likely only further exacerbate the parity issues plaguing the K League.
The other approach is the successful approach of the J1 League in creating local fanbases for each of their clubs. This is the route I would love to see the K League emulate and it will involve more work making sure the average Korean is more aware of the K League. I’ve joked with friends on Twitter about how Koreans just love FC Korea (aka the KNT). This is true in the sense that Koreans turn out far more for KNT friendlies, World Cup qualifiers, and even youth tournaments involving the KNT (the U20 World Cup saw Korean matches with strong crowds in Jeonju and Cheonan). In this sense, Korea is also similar to the US in that football (or yes, soccer) is also not a mainstream sport here in the States and interest grows much stronger in World Cup years. So, we have finally come to Keno’s comment. How did MLS find a way to build a fanbase that tapped into the diehard soccer fans and resulted in an average attendance of 22,112?
First of all, it is important to note that some MLS clubs are playing in NFL stadiums that are also much too big for them, which mirrors the K League clubs still using gargantuan World Cup stadiums. For some MLS clubs like New England Revolution, this results in them being on the lower end of the attendance spectrum. However, like I mentioned last week with Atlanta United FC and the fore-runner of this trend Seattle Sounders FC, both clubs find innovative ways to create a fan culture that overcomes a stadium that is too large for the fanbase.
Ok, I really have to get to Keno’s comment and the really great point he made! I’ll talk about my experience when I attended a Seattle Sounders FC match a few years ago. This will get to his point about soccer pubs and how they can build a fan culture. On matchday, my dad and I wanted to watch the Arsenal-Chelsea match that morning so we researched a local soccer pub. When we got there, not only did we see Arsenal and Chelsea scarves, but we saw a lot of rave green Sounders scarves. Unknowingly, we had walked into one of the Sounders FC pubs! After the Arsenal match ended the Sounders fans began to leave the bar and started their March to the Match. The March to the Match is a Seattle tradition that creates a sea of rave green, lots of drums and horns, and even sometimes attracts a celebrity to lead the march. Drew Carey, the TV game show host, is a minority owner of the club and has led the march on many occasions. This all started with Sounders FC reaching out to local pubs looking for a place for their fans to gather before the match and then building a unique fan tradition on top of that.
In my city of Chicago, Chicago Fire have gone one step farther and built an official Fire pub on the site of their community training center. On matchdays, you can gather there and take an official Chicago Fire Pub to Pitch bus to get to the stadium. This seems like something that the K League could look into. A fellow Incheon fan has told me that there is supposed to be an official Incheon United pub for away matches, but has found it closed on some matchdays. Hopefully K League clubs can start exploring their communities and finding local bars/restaurants that are interested in partnering with the club to serve as a gathering spot for the fans. Even better, clubs could poll their fans and find out where they like to go before/after the match to come up with a spot for their fans!
Keno also mentioned also mentioned how MLS clubs reached out to local USMNT fan clubs to garner interest. This is also a good idea that could be used in the K League. For example, this year’s World Cup squad contains 12 players across both the K League 1 and 2. Hopefully, the K League will work with the KFA to promote the return of the K League in July and shine a spotlight on the World Cup players returning to their domestic clubs. In the future, it would be great to see the K League and KFA team up to offer joint ticket deals for KNT and K League matches. For example, when the friendly is in Jeonju, a ticket could be used not only for the KNT match but also for the next Jeonbuk match. Even further, all K League clubs could ask fans to bring their recent KNT ticket to the next match for a discount. These types of ideas should be considered to tap into KNT fans being encouraged to also attend K League matches.
These forms of community and fan engagement are just some of the ways that the K League could grow their fanbase. I talked about some other ideas throughout the community such as school fan clubs or soccer clinics last week so I won’t reiterate that here, but I realized I had forgotten another idea that I thought could really provide a boost. This one may or may not prove popular with you guys, but I think K League clubs should do more to engage celebrities of all types in their matches. For example, this season the popular AfreecaTV/Youtube BJ (Broadcast Jockey) Gamst is serving as the honorary ambassador of the K League. I was curious what kind of arrangement this would result in and he was invited to the Incheon United-Jeonbuk Hyundai match in the second week of the season. He did a pre-match broadcast on AfreecaTV where he was in the team tunnel talking to some of the players. That broadcast had 12,000 viewers! According to the K League, the attendance for that match was 7,160. That’s a bit of a difference for sure but the influence of Gamst means that 12,000 viewers knew they were watching a BJ they were a fan of going to the K League. They might start thinking about wanting to go themselves.
At that match, the hip-hop group Rhythm Power were also invited and did a fan signing as well as a half-time performance. You might say this is a shallow solution but I personally think that the K League should consider this type of celebrity marketing to draw fans to their matches. Many K-Pop stars are invited to throw out the first pitch at KBO games, why can’t K League clubs ask some celebrities to participate in a kickabout before the match for the fans? Another example of a K League club having celebrities attend the match that I remember from this season was when Samsung Bluewings invited popular K-pop group Mamamoo to the match. The weather that day was really poor so it didn’t amount to much, but it’s really a smart idea. Clubs could invite local celebrities popular in the city to the match and get more eyeballs on the match from home. Korea is a very social media savvy country, there could be some influence if you’re flipping through Instagram and see your favorite celebrity posting about going to the K League on a regular basis!
Those are my ideas for the K League to expand their reach into the communities they are involved in. For next week, I am considering examining the financial feasibility of stadium renovations/new builds for K League clubs and the affects they could bring to the local community. Get active in the comments with your response to my ideas, suggest your own ideas, or propose ideas for future columns in this series. As always, I’ll be right down there with you!