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A Non-FC Seoul Post: Where Are All the Fans?

Originally, when I saw the attendance figures for the games on Wednesday, I was going to leave a quick comment on how poor a showing that is for a game. Then, things began to spiral out of control and the words poured forth. One paragraph followed another and soon, the length was out of control, hence, this monstrosity of a post. Anyways, if you find comparisons attendance between various Korean sports leagues dull, stop reading.  If not, then read on and hopefully you will enjoy it.

I cannot believe that FC Seoul only had 5,023 fans. That is terrible, especially considering that Seoul's population is over 10 million. That means only 0.0005023% of people in Seoul chose to watch the game. Sure, let's say at least a quarter to a third had to work or go to school. Let's say another quarter to a third do not like soccer. Finally, let's say a quarter had to do something else or stayed away for fear of contracting MERS. I still feel as though there should have more fans on a wonderful summer evening. Even worse, Daejon only had 1,240 fans and Busan only had 1,520 fans show up.  In America, that would get a sports franchise relocated or shut down.  That leads me to two questions.

First, why does the K-League persist with playing week day games? How can this possibly be a successful business model? If 7,219 fans (Pohang Steelers) is your highest attendance figure, then I think that spells a resounding lack of interest in your product.

Let's add up how many people went to last night's game. These figures are from the K-League's Twitter feed. There are probably less fans since teams might artificially boost attendance figures.

Daejon-       1,240
Busan-        1,521
Jeonnam-    4,460
Jeju-            4,472
Seoul-         5,023
Pohang-      7,219

Total-        23,935

Korea's total population is 49.3 million people. I am by no means a math whiz, but it does not seem as though the local populace is supportive of the country's soccer league. I understand why they play weekday games. To conform to the AFC's dictates concerning relegation and standardization, they have to do it this way. However, someone in the K-League offices (and at the KFA for that matter) really should look into how soccer in Korea can become more popular at the grassroots level. Otherwise, I cannot see the K-League prospering any time soon.

Second, why don't fans support the K-League? Looking at Wikipedia, "football has been traditionally regarded as the most popular sport." In the same post, a 2009 poll "indicates that a majority, 41%of South Korean fans self-identify as football fans, with baseball ranked 2nd at 25% of respondents." They will get up at 4 a.m. to watch Son Heung-min play in the Champion's League, but they won't pay ₩10,000 to ₩15,000 to support their local franchise.

So, if soccer is the most popular sport in Korea, then why does it not translate to similar attendance figures between the local organizations?  The survey was conducted in 2009, right before the world cup, so people were probably excited about the national team.  This could account for the difference in popularity.  Also, maybe some of those self-identified soccer fans are no longer fans.  However, I still don't think these reasons answer why there is such a resounding difference in attendance between the sports. Let's compare 2014 attendance between Korea's two favorite sports and their respective cadres, the K-League Classic and Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).

League                               Attendance in 2014                         Average per Game in 2014
K-League Classic                    1.8 Million                                     7,950 fans per game
KBO                                        6.5 Million                                   11,300 fans per game

That is quite a significant gap in the number of fans attending. That is a difference of 4.7 million people attending a baseball game in 2014 rather than a soccer game. Of course there is probably overlap, but still, that is a very big number. Also, the KBO had only nine teams while K-League Classic had 12, so the gap between the two stands out even more since there are more soccer teams to watch than baseball teams.

So, what makes Koreans more interested in watching baseball rather than soccer?  Is it the quality of play?  Often times, I have heard Koreans who cheer for European teams talk about how poor the K-League is or how boring it is.  This may be true, but then why is it not the same for the KBO?

I have been to baseball games in Korea.  The pitching is terrible and teams often go through nineteen relievers (a slight exaggeration) in a single game.  The games are quite long and the blackouts many since often times I go through a beer an inning (I am not an alcoholic. The innings usually last 30 to 40 minutes at least).

Sure, the atmosphere can be a lot of fun, but what makes it that way? Is it because more people are at a game? Is it the ridiculous contests between innings? Is it the cheerleaders? The K-League does all that now. It isn't constant like in baseball, but stick around at half-time and you are bound to witness some competition that panders to the fans' desire to get free shit and/or be entertained. So again, why do they choose baseball over soccer?

The KBO is not nearly up to the standards of Major League Baseball (MLB).  Hell, it isn't even close to the Japanese major leagues, since Korean players who don't go to America will often opt to go there rather than stay in Korea (re: Lee Dae-ho).  I will grant that Korean baseball players who have success in the MLB as of late (Shin Soo-choo, Ryu Hyun-jin) are bigger stars than those in soccer, but that was definitely not always true.

Long ago, when the world was a simpler place and the specter of Osama Bin Laden loomed large over everyone and every thing, there was a player named Park Ji-sung. He was a legend and he played for the most evil team in the world, Manchester United. It was a torturous time to live in Korea because the only games on TV were those Man U played. It seemed like every third person, especially a child, loved the red devils.

Often times, even if he didn't play, a weekly highlight show of him would appear on SBS or MBC. One could watch Park Ji-sung cheer his team on as the announcers analyzed why his facial contortions prompted the Red Devils to score (obviously, a trifecta of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, and Carlos Tevez had nothing to do with their success).  If Park did play, they would just show his sideways pass or him making a run.  If he scored or did something to help, then they would replay that ad naseum.

By no means am I dissing Park Ji-sung.  He was a great player even if it happened to be with one of the worst teams.  I always wanted him to do well when he played.  My point is that Koreans love big players who excel at the top, regardless of the league.

Therefore, I do not understand why baseball is consistently more popular than soccer.  Soccer is the most popular sport, with almost half the population claiming to be fans while baseball only has a quarter of the populace.  Maybe baseball fans are more supportive and soccer self-reported soccer fans are fair weather.

I agree the atmosphere is better at baseball games, but much of that comes down to there being a lot of people at the game.  When Seoul's stadium is filled, it is pretty amazing.  Again, I cannot imagine why people would not want to continually come back.

I feel as though this is not something that will get better either. This WorldFootball.net piece shows K-League attendance from 2010 until 2014.  Because of the split, I decided to put all three numbers in for 2012, 2013, and 2014.  After that, I added everything up on a calculator.

Year       Attendance (League/Playoffs)                      Average per Game (League/Playoffs)
2010            2,297,691 / 134,410                                    10,941 / 22,402
2011            2,710,056 / 150,810                                    11,292 / 25,135

Year        Attendance (League/Top 6/Bottom 6)        Average per Game (League/Top 6/Bottom 6)
2012           1,797,978 / 497,913 / 99,298                       7,532 /   8,891 / 2,364
2013           1,536,010 / 385,633 / 114,631                     8,440 / 9,182  /  2,729
2014           1,635,355 / 143,816 / 33,468                       8,249 / 9,588  /  2,231

Year         Total Matches Played           Total Attendance            Average per Game
2010                     216                               2,432,101                       11,259
2011                     246                               2,860,866                       11,629
2012                     337                               2,395,189                         7,107
2013                     266                               2,036,274                         7,655
2014                     228                               1,812,639                         7,950

Looking at the data, 2011 was when the league was at it's most popular.  A new team had been added, so that probably helped raise attendance figures.  However, there was the betting scandal, which probably served to keep many people from coming to the game.

The drop off, with regards to average attendance, between 2011 and 2012 is quite large.  The league played 91 more games in 2012 than 2011, yet they had 465,677 less fans than the year before. The average attendance fell by 4,522 people.  That is close to a 40% reduction in fans, I believe.

I not too sure what the numbers are for baseball, but based on 2014 they are probably have been better than soccer every year. I am not going to dig either since it would be a lot of work, but I will link this Korea Herald article.  It is about how the KBO is worried about the 10,380 fans it was averaging after 92 games in 2013.

If K-League were only so lucky.  So, again, why do people support baseball but not soccer?  Is it because of the split schedule?  I hate it and I am sure many other fans do.  Should they bring back the playoffs?

Are there too many games, so now people just don't care?  I have heard lamentations about the European Champion's League and how, because the top teams face each so frequently, that it is no longer as special as it once was.  Is this also a case of too much of a good thing?

Obviously, I don't know what the answer is.  If I did, I would probably be employed by the League office rather than toiling away in obscurity teaching English to children that would not shed a tear if I dropped dead from a heart attack.  If anyone out there does though, let me know.


  1. Yeah....definitely not a maths wiz :) 4.9% of Korea would be about 2.5m people not 25,000. Midweek games + MERS = crappy turnouts this week. One interesting thing... SEFC attendances have been very consistent this season - thanks I think to a lot of season ticket holders.

    1. haha- thanks for the fix w/math. I must have plugged the numbers into the calculator wrong. I saw SEFC play Goyang a few weeks ago. It was a great game, but only 1600 people came out. SEFC had a good traveling section though. Martin Rennie seems to be the tops.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. At the minute the crowds are UP just about everywhere (except Suwon) on last season. Although the numbers are made tricky by the big opening round attendances which need to be averaged out over the season. Today's crowds were crap again though - but that's MERS related I think

    1. The K-League did have a great opening week. Seoul had over 30 K fans. I think it helps that in the Classic the standings are so close. Other than Daejon, everyone is withing striking distance of the top 6. I think that will change as the year goes on and teams fall out of contention. If MERS gets worse, do you think they might suspend some games? Where I live, there are a lot of rumors going around about what hospitals have had MERS cases.

  4. Nice article.
    I had the same feeling when I lived in Korea.
    K league is not boring at all. I just couldn't understand why there was no supporters in the stadiums.
    I am Brazilian and I did have fun with the atmosphere in Suwon world cup stadium.
    I hope they can change it.


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