First of all, I want to thank you all for the great response to the first edition of this new Tavern series. I was blown away by the response in the comments section and became more and more motivated to make this series the best that it can be. Moving forward, you can expect me to be really active in the comments because I have really enjoyed the back and forth discussions that we got from last week’s piece. My vision for this series is to tackle as many topics as I can think of (or that you all suggest) and then revisit those topics over the years so that we can see progress or regression (hopefully not) in the Korean football scene. Hopefully, the Tavern will expand further into Korea so that we can be on the ground watching Korean football change and evolve over the years. I hope that you will come along for the ride.
For this week’s column, I decided to tackle the issue that is currently plaguing football in Korea: poor attendance. The discussion about this issue got a little heated last week (which is why I chose to tackle this topic) so I just want to remind you all that this is probably the biggest problem in Korean football. As such, I truly believe there are no wrong answers when it comes to trying to fix it. For example, Ryan Walters wrote a great series examining the issues in play that cause the K League attendance problems over at K League United. Check out that series here: K League and MLS. With that in mind, get active in the comments to propose your own ideas as well. However, make sure to respect the ideas of others, as everyone has different ideas about how to make changes that will improve attendance at Korean football matches. In fact, over the last week or so I’ve gotten lost in my thoughts pondering just exactly how I would solve such a complex issue. In the end, I decided that there is absolutely no one foolproof way to solve this issue. Instead, there are only ideas that can function as steps forward and experiments that could get people out to football matches on a more regular basis. Alright, we’ve got the ground rules down! Let’s get into it!
How did it get this bad?
Believe it or not, football in Korea used to be way more popular than it is now. My friend Jun from @6thofJun always wows me when he talks about the attendance figures that K League clubs used to get just 10 years ago. He shared a site (Here’s a link: K League Attendance) that documented K League attendance over the years and you can see that the best figures were in the 2000s, around the time of the 2002 World Cup. That clearly makes sense as we all remember how World Cup fever gripped Korea in that fateful summer. In 2002, the K League attendance average peaked at 14,651 and 2.65 million people attended matches! Over the next 9 years, the average attendance remained stable at around 10k per match, nothing special but much better than what we have now. Unfortunately, in 2011 the floor fell out from underneath the K League. We all know what happened so I’ll just summarize the issue here and leave you an article for further reading (Here is our friend Steve Price’s analysis of the ongoing corruption in the K League from 2016, Match Fixing in the K League). In the 2011 season, multiple K League clubs, players, coaches, and referees engaged in match fixing and there was a large-scale criminal investigation into the practice within Korean football. Players and coaches were banned from the league, clubs were fined heavily, people were jailed, and unfortunately there were a few player suicides (RIP to all the lives lost in the scandal). It was a terrible time to be involved in Korean football and it was the moment when fans lost faith in the K League. Take a look at Tim’s graphic of the average K League attendance since 2008.
The 2012 season saw a sharp drop in average attendance to 7,157 people and last season dropped to 6,486 people. Seeing some of the figures that our friend Steve Han and my fellow Incheon United fan @tpbarnes86 are reporting weekly, it is hard to say whether 2018’s average attendance will be better or worse than last season’s. It can be disheartening to go to K League matches and see all those empty seats. It’s not even just the K League. The KNT has struggled to get good attendance for their World Cup qualifying and friendly matches. Steve Han reported that Monday’s KNT friendly in Daegu was the lowest reported attendance for a KNT match at Daegu Stadium. So, where do we go from here? How can we get people back to watching K League and KNT matches in the stadiums? I would never be arrogant enough to think that I can even come close to solving this problem but I want to offer my ideas for what I would like to see moving forward in the K League. Feel free to disagree with me respectfully and offer your own ideas. Like I said before, you can count on me being in the comments section discussing with you.
The absolute first thing I would love to see K League clubs do is build stadiums that their fans want to go to! This is clearly my MLS fan coming through, but I am absolutely supportive of the MLS requirement that new clubs build football-specific stadiums. When you have a football-specific stadium tailored to your fanbase that your fans can fill up, the atmosphere on matchday dramatically improves. Fans get excited about walking to the match together, making tifos to show the players, and developing great chants. In MLS, you see this with Atlanta United FC and their ability to sell-out their 40k adjusted capacity Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Even just watching a match of theirs on TV, I am always struck by the atmosphere that they are creating week in week out inside that stadium.
In the K League, you often struggle to recreate this atmosphere (though there are obvious exceptions I will address later) because there are two stadium trends absolutely hampering the K League. The first is absolutely FIFA’s fault as Korea was forced to build large stadiums to meet FIFA’s capacity requirements for the 2002 World Cup. The club that is harmed by this trend the most is clearly Jeju United, who struggle to get attendances of even 5k at Seogwipo World Cup Stadium, which has a reduced capacity near 30,000. The other stadium trend is caused by an obscure Korean city planning law that I believe requires all cities to have a stadium with a running track to cater to their citizens (please correct me or educate me about this law, as I seem to remember reading it somewhere a while back). Many K League clubs, including Gangwon FC and Sangju Sangmu, are playing on pitches encircled by running tracks that prevent fans from getting close to the action. With these two trends, the fans clearly respond by saying, “why would I want to watch a match at these stadiums?”
K League clubs are currently working on remedying both of these problems in various ways. Some clubs, like Seoul E-Land FC, are treading water trying to get fans to come to their huge stadiums. Others, like Daegu and Gwangju FC, are ditching their gigantic stadiums and building new and smaller stadiums. Finally, there are clubs making the best of their situations by modifying their stadiums in specific ways that help fans get into the action. Let’s try to zero in on what I like about these efforts.
First of all, as an Incheon United fan who went to Sungui Arena Park a lot in my two years in Incheon, even if we can’t fill our 20,000 seater stadium, it’s still a beaut! When I first saw it, I immediately thought of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. The South Stand is where our supporters gather and it has safe standing that allows them to jump around to their heart’s desire. Even if the stadium is never full, you always hear them. 3 K League clubs, Gwangju FC and Bucheon 1995 FC in the K League 2 and Daegu FC in K League 1, have all announced plans to build football-specific stadiums in the next couple years. Daegu’s stadium is the closest to completion so I will show you the lovely renders and gush about what I like about the project.
— Viva La K-League (@kleagueno1) November 3, 2017
What is great about this stadium concept is that it has a small capacity and it has a roof that will completely cover the fans. This is actually a huge concern as Daegu has exceptionally hot summers! In terms of capacity, Daegu FC will move from the 66k capacity Daegu Stadium to the 12k capacity Forest Arena after this season. Currently Daegu struggle to draw even a couple thousand fans to their matches so going to a small stadium will do wonders for the atmosphere at matches, even if there isn’t a huge growth in attendance. However, I am hopeful that there will be an increase in attendance for a few reasons. For one, the Forest Arena is in a much more accessible location compared to Daegu Stadium, which my friends Steve Price and Jon Christian have both said is an absolute chore to get to. The Forest Arena sits on the old site of the Daegu Civil Stadium and is part of a redeveloped sports park that will include an amateur baseball stadium, smaller soccer fields, and other sports facilities. It will be in a more populated area which will mean that more people will see the stadium and possibly get interested in checking it out. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to check out the new stadium soon!
Another strategy that K League clubs use to attract fans to stadiums that are either too big or with stands that are too removed from the action is to modify the stadium. Some strategies for this in World Cup Stadiums is to remove seats and replace them with safe standing rails or table seating. Both practices are a step forward as they allow the diehards a chance to jump and chant all match or the families a chance to enjoy a picnic at the match. At the civil stadiums with running tracks, clubs have been erecting temporary stands behind the goals to get fans closer to the action. I saw Sangju’s stand a few weeks back and I liked the incorporation of a large umbrella to give fans shade from sunny days. Seongnam FC also installed some faux turf on their temporary stand to make the fans feel like they’re on a pitch of sorts. These temporary stands should be standard practice on the running tracks and should be behind both goals. One should be for the home fans and the other should be reserved for the traveling fans. This will give an atmosphere at both ends. Put tarps in the stands directly behind those temporary stands so no one’s view gets blocked (also a good advertising opportunity for local sponsors, wink wink). There is certainly more to address with stadiums but I think I’ll move on and leave the rest for the comments.
2. Transportation Options
This one applies specifically to stadiums that are currently not easy to get to, namely Daegu Stadium and Seogwipo World Cup Stadium. In Chicago, our MLS club has come up with a very novel solution to the fact that they built their stadium out in the suburbs outside of downtown. At local bars around Chicago, you can gather for a few drinks and then a shuttle bus will drive you to the match! Jeju United and Daegu should look into this. You already see plenty of hagwon shuttles driving through cities in Korea everyday. Why not reserve a few shuttles and drive your fans from downtown to the stadium? In Seogwipo, this would really help since Seogwipo is much less populated than Jeju City. Drive fans from Jeju City to Seogwipo for the matches (think about it guys!).
3. The Foreigner Trap/Solution
One of the turning points for MLS as a league was the arrival of David Beckham. Out of nowhere, MLS had found a superstar that could fill any stadium just with his name value. However, these days his legacy has bred a very specific problem that I want the K League to avoid at all costs. The example I will use to illustrate this is a recent match featuring my Chicago Fire and the LA Galaxy, who recently signed the one and only Zlatan! For this match, the stadium sold out and the club were even forced to add a temporary stand behind one of the goals to make room for all the fans. Then the next match, we were right back to a half-empty stadium. Let’s apply this concept to the recent signing of Iniesta by Vissel Kobe by saying that hypothetically Suwon Samsung were to sign him to try to catch Jeonbuk in the league. Immediately, matches featuring Suwon would be the hottest ticket in the K League and Suwon’s away matches would sell out. However, the clubs that can’t afford that kind of star will continue to struggle with attendance when Iniesta isn’t in town.
What’s my counterpoint to this? I think that a good example would be to look at the type of stars being attracted to new MLS clubs like Atlanta United and LAFC. They are signing young and exciting players waiting to establish their names. Someone like Miguel Almiron is exciting the fans not because he was a big star before he came to Atlanta but because Atlanta fans can claim him as their pride and joy. K League teams must search far and wide for these kinds of players. Gyeongnam FC are doing a great job of this with Marcao and Negueba this season. When you sign a foreigner to your club, I also believe that K League clubs should reach out to that player’s community already living in Korea. Here’s an example of a missed opportunity that Incheon United had when they brought in the young Vietnamese player Lương Xuân Trường a few seasons back.There is actually a substantial Vietnamese community in Incheon but Luong got very little playing time and so there was very little for the local community to get excited about. Instead of wasting him on the bench, he should’ve gotten a runout early in the season and the club should have planned events in the local Vietnamese communities to introduce their new young player. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that happened.
4. Community Engagement
Another area I think is hugely lacking from K League clubs is a presence in their cities. One thing I noticed in my time in Incheon was that there were minimal advertisements for the club in the city. Incheon is a spread out city so there is that added challenge, but you could go through the city and have no idea there was a football club until you saw the stadium itself. I recently saw a post from Incheon’s Instagram that showed the Dowon subway station wrapped with banners for the club with a schedule and pictures of the players! It’s a great start. I think clubs should buy ads on the the subways and buses so that fans can learn about the club as they travel the city. On the subway, buy an ad that shows your stadium so that fans know when to get off to go to the match. It sounds simple but I’ve yet to see it done so I’m suggesting it. On a side note, last year in Gwangju I saw their subway had video ads for Gwangju FC, so that’s where my subway inspiration came from.
Other community engagement events I would consider are events in the preseason that introduce the city to the squad as well as fan clubs at local schools. Let’s start with introducing the squad to the city. The Korean World Cup squad recently held an opening ceremony at Seoul City Hall Plaza that attracted a lot of fans, featured a performance from Gugudan’s Sejeong (sorry, I have a crush on her!), and ended with a lot of autograph signings. Did FC Seoul do anything like this to begin their season? Did any K League club have any kind of event like this? It is crucial for K League clubs to get out into the community to introduce their players to the city and get fans excited for the matches. Maybe hold a local clinic for youth footballers where the squad does some teaching and scrimmaging for the public. Open training sessions? Appearances at local landmarks for photo ops? Take the new foreign signing on a tour of the city and invite fans along? The ideas could keep flowing forever. Tell me in the comments what K League clubs are doing and if you have any more ideas for this.
Now to the local fan clubs at schools. I think this could tie into the local schools that are functioning as youth sides for the club. There should be much more made of young local players making their way into the first team squad. When a young player makes the squad, do everything to get him back to his old stomping grounds to do events so that he can inspire the next generation of footballers. Remind the school that the club is investing in their growth as footballers and get those kids excited about going to matches to see that player that used to play for their school! Whether it’s free tickets for students or working with the school to have family ticket deals offered, I would hope that K League clubs could engage their youth sides more in the senior squad so that fan bases can be cultivated from an early age.
5. Matchday Environment
We’ve finally arrived at the issue that drives most people away from the K League and the one that drew the most controversy in last week’s comments section. Let’s all be brutally honest, the K League matchday experience is not great, with notable exceptions. Suwon and Jeonbuk both have very raucous supporters sections that get very loud, travel well, and seem very fun to be a part of. However, too many casual fans go to a match, find the match dull, and tune out of the match, or worse, watch baseball on their phones (K League Kilt, I know that’s a pet peeve of yours)! What can be done to rival the experience at a KBO baseball game? You might be thinking that I’m going to say that the K League should try to compete with the KBO by hiring cheerleaders and cheermasters to keep the fans engaged at every moment. Fortunately for you, I will not be doing that!
What I would suggest are modest changes that could make the average K League match a little better to attend. My MLS team has pretty average attendance for the league, hovering at 14k while MLS average last season was 22k. That being said, even an average MLS team does a few things right that K League clubs should also do. Every match, I receive a match program with the updated squad list, injuries, and all the fan songs that the supporters will sing. In my 2 years of attending Incheon matches, I do not once remember receiving a program telling me the lyrics to the songs our supporters sang. Consequently, I never learned any of the songs! This would require each K League club to engage their supporters group and have them share their song lyrics. Kids in Korea these days learn the songs at KBO games, why can’t they also learn football chants?
Another thing that the Chicago Fire do is set up a fan area before the match with giveaways as well as skills areas in the parking lot. Just having a little bit of activities to go to and a chance to interact with the club staff/players would be really fun for a casual fan. I’ve noticed that Incheon has been having weekly pre-match player signing events with the players rotating weekly. That’s a good move for the club and hopefully front offices and marketing departments can come up with more ideas along that line. In addition, clubs should ask permission to set up activities for kids on a regular basis outside their stadiums so that families can see that the K League is a place for kids to have a fun day out.
6. Ticket Deals
This is the last one I’ll address for now because I think I might be losing you guys. But I think one thing that clubs should do is have their ticket sales department calling out to local companies to try to sell ticket packages for their matches. Hweshik (or company dinner) is still very important in the Korean salaryman culture and I would love to see K League clubs advertising their matches as a nice place for a good company dinner. I mean, the Korean government wants to regulate these boozy company dinners to protect workers, so why not advertise the match as a great way to kick back with a few beers and have a good time? A K League match is exactly 2 hours, plenty of time for the salaryman to relax after work and then go home after the match. It seems like a no brainer to me, especially since there’s that new rule that you can’t go to a second spot anymore. The company dinner would have a safe time limit and would provide a nice environment for the workers to have some fun. Ticketing departments, get on it!
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations and thank you for reading! These were just some of my ideas to improve attendance at K League and KNT matches going forward. There are so many possibilities for improving this issue, let’s see what kind of ideas you can come up with in the comments below! I’ll see you there!