As part of our partnership with Beyond The Pitch, Football Channel will be publishing a series of features in the coming weeks profiling football in various Asian countries. These features were originally used in the Japanese-language publication Asian Football Critique, published by our parent company Kanzen in June 2015.
From reaching the World Cup semi-finals as 2002 co-hosts to a hard-fought second place finish in the 2015 Asian Cup, South Korea have become a force to be reckoned with not just in Asia, but globally. Legendary players such as Park Ji-sung and Cha Bum-kun blazed the path for a current generation of stars in Europe, including Ki Sung-yueng and Son Heung-min.
South Korean clubs excel on the continental level as well, having won 10 Asian Cup Championship and AFC Champions League trophies in the last two decades. Yet as the K-League struggles to increase its popularity, the beautiful game’s relationship with Korea remains a complicated one.
From Seoul to Sao Paulo, it’s not hard to spot fans of the Taeguk Warriors on match day. Members of the “Red Devils”, the national team’s official supporters group, are known for their characteristic “Be the Reds!” tee-shirts as well as their organised and passionate cheering.
During the World Cup semi-final against Germany in the 2002 World Cup, about 6.5 million people – roughly 15% of the country’s 40 million-strong population – attended public viewing events.
South Korea are one of the best teams in Asia, having been the first to reach a World Cup semi-final, won four gold medals in the Asian Games, achieved a bronze-medal finish in London 2012, and reached the recent Asian Cup final in Australia. Indeed, South Korea are the only Asian team who have participated in nine straight World Cups, even though 2014 was – as was the case for Japan, Iran, and Australia – a disappointment.
Owing to their popularity and success, the Korea Football Association has become one of the richest sports associations in Korea. The association receives a very small amount of government funds in order to allow government offices to conduct audits to ensure transparency.
The KFA’s successful management has resulted in a financially healthy organisation, allowing the association to focus on both short- and long-term goals. A fourth of the budget is used for youth development, including regional youth leagues which are held on weekends. 60% of profits from the 2002 World Cup went toward fostering youth development, and one of the associated projects was the sponsoring of young players to learn football in Europe. Among beneficiaries were Ji Dong-won, Nam Tae-hee and the famous Son Heung-min, recently recognised by FourFourTwo as Asia’s best player.
Just like the national team, the 12-club K League is one of the most successful and competitive leagues in Asia. Korean clubs have won 10 AFC Champions League titles. Among those champions are Pohang Steelers, the most successful club in the AFC Champions League with three trophies.
But in contrast to the national team, the K League’s domestic popularity is not that high. Despite the league’s success at the continental level, many criticise K League for its relatively low standard of play and prefer to watch European leagues. A change in the league format to a “split league” system, similar to that of the Scottish Premier League, failed to attract renewed interest in the competition.
A major struggle that Koreans team face is financial: it is almost impossible to profit on a professional football team in the country. The 2014 K League drew an average of 7,905 per match.However, most attendees received free tickets from clubs; as a result, spectators on average paid about 360 yen per ticket. Jeju United supporters paid an average of 101 per purchased ticket.
Most K League clubs operate at a loss forcing them to depend on sponsorship for as much as 80% of their operating budget. It’s no surprise that the country’s biggest teams – Suwon Samsung Bluewings, Ulsan Hyundai, and Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors – are backed by large companies.
The situation is worse for “citizen teams” backed by local municipalities. who struggle to exist without the backing of so-called “Splenda Daddies.” This lack of financial support inevitably leads to poor results on the pitch and a decrease in support, leading sponsors to drop out and financial crises to magnify. Incheon United, who reported a $9 million in 2014, have been accused of delays in wage payments over the last three years.
But unlike the J.League, who have expanded their overseas broadcasting reach, the K League has struggled to find solid ground domestically. On May 5, Children’s Day in Korea, South Korea legend Lee Dong-gook posted a photo of five television channel broadcasting the same baseball match to his Instagram account.
“What should children who want to watch football on Children’s Day do?” he asked. Neither of the two K League matches on that day were aired on TV, evidence of baseball’s superiority in Korean media. But as Korean football’s movers and shakers have learned, it remains difficult to find new fans without reaching them through mass media.
How can Korean football improve?
To their credit, several clubs have taken steps to increase attendance and raise interest in the league. At the beginning of the 2015 season, Suwon Samsung Bluewings announced that they would no longer give away free tickets in order to increase revenues; other clubs are expected to follow in their footsteps.
The Korea Professional Football League, who oversee the first division K League Classic as well as the second division K League Challenge, signed a contract with national broadcaster KBS. The deal will allow up to two K League matches per week, usually involving big clubs, to be broadcast live.
League officials hope that increased public exposure, spurred on by the country’s Asian Cup success and the continued good form of its ACL representatives, will inspire more fans to grow closer to their local clubs.
With average attendance up about 1,300 per match, it is clear that domestic football in Korea is on the verge of a new renaissance.