Has the MERS outbreak affected K League attendances?

If you have family in Korea or even have been following the news, you must be aware that an outbreak of MERS has recently hit Korea. The whole Korean nation is, as a result, in a bit of a panic-mode to avoid contracting this disease that has taken 23 lives. But is it responsible for recent poor attendances at sports events such as the K League? Or even, has their been a decline in K League attendances?

What is MERS?

MERS (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome) is a virus, also known as the camel flu. It originated in Saudi Arabia, with the first recorded case coming in 2012. It spreads from close contact with a person (such as cough spittle) but usually spreads inside hospitals. Although camels may have antibodies to MERS, the reaction of humans to fight the virus takes a bit longer. MERS can provoke fever, cough, diarrhea and breath shortness.

So… a camel flu outbreak in Korea? I’m not following.

The media reports that I’ve read (and heard about from my family there) suggests that someone who visited the Middle East on work obligations transmitted the disease in Korea. Because it’s not very well known in Korea, he visited several hospitals in the Seoul-region before getting a proper diagnosis. Many hospitals failed to put him into isolation or take measures that would immediately stop the spread of the disease. So, voila, the beginning of a mini-outbreak of a virus no one really understood. Paranoia and mini-chaos across the country. Distrust in government (after the Sewol failure last year) and closure of schools and businesses. So far, as of June 25th, there have been 29 deaths and just under 200 reported cases. The areas most affected are Seoul and the Gyeonggi-do region (Hwaseong area) with (a very small amount of) cases found as far as Busan and Daegu. The outbreak started on May 20th and is ongoing, but cases and deaths are (thankfully) begin to stagnate. A better understanding of the disease means schools are re-opening and less people are being ushered into quarantine. Despite this, the Korean economy is taking a plunge and a new Prime Minister was appointed by unpopular President Park Geunhye, who made it a priority to deal with the crisis.

Okay, okay, so the football? I’m getting there. The result of the outbreak is a decline in attendances for sporting events, where people come into close contract with each other (seats, ultras/fan groups) and thus may have contracted the disease. I decided to take a look at a few stats for K League attendances before and after the outbreak.

What were K League attendances like prior to the MERS outbreak?

So the K League season started on March 7th, 2015. For the purpose of this article, we will only look at Classic teams. I could also look at Seoul E-Land, but they are an expansion team and probably don’t accurately access anything, because of the lack of an established fan base.

Until May 20th (the beginning of the outbreak), the average attendance in the league was 9,177, a 15.98% increase from the same time last season. FC Seoul was averaging 19,634, the best in the K League, despite lacking in goals and excitement. Suwon Bluewings, who aren’t far from the Seoul region, were averaging 14,625, 3rd in the K League. The total attendance was 605,674.

What were K League attendances like for the same time period last season?

The average attendance for the same time last season was 7,912, which marks a 31% increase for the same time period this season as opposed to last season. The teams seeing the biggest growth were the two Jeolla-do clubs. Defending champions Jeonbuk saw a 91% increase (10,269 average last season to 19,540 this season) and while the Jeonnam Dragons saw their attendances increase by 79.5% (from 3,883 to 6,969). The overall league growth was 31.4%.

Note: Daejeon and Gwangju also saw incredible increases, but that’s mostly due to the fact that they played in the second tier last season.


Now that we have the two statistics representing the period before May 20th (the beginning of the outbreak), namely the attendance average and the growth from last season for the same number of matches, we can now compare these two statistics for the two different time periods – before the outbreak began, and after the outbreak began.

The result?

There has been a very noticeable change in the attendance averages after the outbreak. The region most affected by MERS, Seoul, is proof of this. After leading the league in attendance at 19,623 average before the outbreak, that number has now fallen to 15,728. This is a 19.8% decrease. You may say, “ah, well the attendance numbers always fall after the first few games!”. This statement is actually false. The numbers show that last season, FC Seoul actually saw their attendance grow for the same number of games after May 20th.

You may also be compelled to say, “ah, well Seoul can’t score, they suck this year”. (To which I normally would answer, Seoul and Suwon (the big clubs) always suck, go Daejeon, but that’s not the point). But so then let’s take a look across the league. Why are defending champions Jeonbuk seeing their attendance fall by 17.2%? Or nearby Suwon by 10.4%? Why are Pohang falling by 20.5%, and Jeju by 19.7%? Seongnam, despite all the ACL chatter, which normally would attract more fans to games, have only seen a 4% growth, the only club other than Gwangju (who have barely played any home games to be fair) seeing a rise in attendance after the outbreak. Think about suggesting attendance numbers fall after the first few games again (because the numbers are distorted due to a high turnout for opening weeks)? Nope. The attendances of 7 of 12 teams rose after May 20th last year. This year, so far, it is only 2 teams on 12.

So, to wrap up – the league has seen a 13% decrease in attendance after the outbreak compared to before the outbreak, with Daejeon being the hardest hit at a 37.6% decrease. (Although, to play devil’s advocate, we’ve been sucking recently). The 31.4% attendance growth compared to last season that was projected before the outbreak? That number has fallen to 15.6%. If we take out Jeonbuk and Busan (I’m guessing the baseball team is struggling, which may contribute for Busan’s case, though I’m not sure), that number is a measly 6%.

But why is the entire country being hit, and not just the Seoul region? Are the fears really rational? I consulted with former Tavern writer and current resident of Korea, Jae Chee. Jae told me that he thinks that “all cases of transmission have happened at places indoors”. He also mentions that although there is a possibility MERS could have spread inside stadiums, he believes the fears are “overblown”.

Another asterisk to add to growth numbers – let’s not forget, early into last season, the Sewol tragedy postponed some games and really destroyed any “let’s go watch a chukgu game!” mood. This year, it’s an outbreak affecting one region of the country in particular, and that can be avoided by simply washing your hands and not touching your face (aka, normal hygiene to avoid a normal flu). And yet the growth is not as significant as it could be because of the outbreak.

So, to conclude (still with me after all those stats?), unfortunately, these “overblown” fears about a disease affecting a small part of the country (and at times cases being discovered in other cities, but this is pretty minimal), and spreading mostly in hospitals and houses, have meant the K League has lost a lot of fans during the outbreak. Am I criticizing people who aren’t turning up to the matches because of the outbreak? Not necessarily, I can certainly understand their logic, however irrational some of it may be.

I am speaking more to the disappointment that the K League hasn’t been able to really pick up on the momentum that they had coming into the season after the Asian Cup campaign. Hopefully, these numbers pick up after the outbreak is finished (which doesn’t seem to be too far away) and of course, above all, without claiming too many lives.


About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

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