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Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS Part 1

Though worlds apart and using different techniques to grow the game domestically, there are a number of similarities between K-League and MLS. Namely, both leagues were formed into their current incarnation due to the country hosting a World Cup. In exchange for FIFA awarding the US the 1994 World Cup, the US Soccer Federation selected Major League Professional Soccer to take over as the top US league. In February of 1995 Major League Soccer was officially formed and began play in 1996 with ten teams. That same year Korea was awarded co-hosting duties for the 2002 World Cup with Japan and two years later the former Korean Super League was transformed into K League. Their inaugural 1998 season similarly started with 10 teams. Since their inception both leagues have had a slew of ups and downs. The less said about run up penalty kicks that decided tied games in MLS the better. Actually... it's best to imagine the majority of the 1990s didn't happen as far as on field MLS matters are concerned. Off the field the league expanded and was nearly immediately forced to contract two teams and struggled mightily for relevance in the crowded American sporting landscape. In fact it wasn't until the aforementioned 2002 World Cup in Korea that both leagues went through a resurgence and grew into their current stage. The US beat Portugal and blanked bitter rivals Mexico 2-0 (better known as dos a cero for we USMNT supporters) to reach their first quarter final. South Korea truly shocked the world beating perennial powerhouses Italy and Spain on their way to the semi-finals. Each nation's World Cup run (including a 1-1 draw between the two in the group stage) lit a fire under the soccer community in their respective countries and things quite literally would never be the same.
(header image via soundersfc.com)

More than ten years on each league has undoubtedly grown, but their trajectories haven't been quite the same. The MLS continues to climb upward in nearly every measurable metric. Their average attendance of 21,574 in 2015 was an all time high and up 64% from their 2000 mark of 13,756. The league currently has an eight year TV deal in place that will net them $720 million over the course of the contract. Additionally MLS has demanded a $100 million expansion fee for teams like New York City FC and LAFC and continues to search in new markets for more teams. Meanwhile, K-League saw an average attendance of 7,727 last year, made $5 million on their TV deal, and may have to contract teams (namely Gangwon) soon.

Obviously league growth is a complex issue and there are a multitude of factors that have led each league to this point. The US can much more easily draw in advertising dollars and hasn't been hit with a corruption scandal like K League's infamous 2011 debacle to name a few. I don't have an answer to everything that ails K League. If I didn't I likely wouldn't be blogging about it and would instead be in a lovely corner office running the show. I'm also acutely aware MLS isn't the gold standard for leagues world wide and not even in the top 10 depending on whom you ask. Furthermore, these posts shouldn't suggest the MLS couldn't learn a thing or two from K-League. They could and I'll go over that in the future. Nonetheless, K-League and MLS have had similar origin stories, were in comparable places a decade ago, and unquestionably are in contrasting places now. As an avid fan of both, I've come up with a few things K-League could do to catch up to where MLS currently is and possibly surpass them. Six things to be specific. They range from the brass tacks of league structure and cashflow to the fan experience and possible ways to boost attendance.

Fret not, calling it soccer isn't one of them.

Over the next six days I'll be releasing them one at a time to allow for plenty of debate on each topic. If you love these ideas, hate em, would like to offer me a job in the league office, or think I've lost my damn mind, I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. But, for now, let's get into one of the larger elephants in K-League's room: stadiums.

The old and new homes of MLS' Sporting Kansas City through the years.
We need look no further than 2013 MLS Champions Sporting Kansas City for the difference a proper stadium can make. One of the founding members of MLS, the then Kansas City Wizards played their first 12 seasons in the 76,416 capacity behemoth Arrowhead Stadium of the NFL. Creating any kind of live game atmosphere or making it look at all respectable on TV was impossible. Even with an average of roughly 10,000 in attendance from 1996-2007 the stadium still had 65,000+ empty seats leaving a feeling more akin to exploring a cave in person or playing a crap version of Where's Waldo on TV. Luckily, in 2011 the team moved to their current home, the 18,467 capacity Sporting Park. A stadium built specifically with fans mobile devices and overall connectivity in mind as well as a world class pitch for players to play on. Even if they still averaged 10,000 people per game, there would only be 8,500 empty seats and the supporters section could at least be heard throughout the stadium. It also looks far more presentable on TV to have the stadium 1/2 full instead of 5/6 empty and may stop the casual fan channel flipping their way though an afternoon. And that's if they still only averaged 10,000 per match. However, coupled with a smart re-branding to drop the Wizards name, the club pushed the in-stadium fan experience to the forefront of their priorities and have enjoyed sold out home games for four years running.

To hit on it again, that's 56,500 less empty seats. Most soccer stadiums around the world don't even have a 50,000 capacity nevertheless enough space for 56,500 empty seats. Yet, in spite of these numbers, Arrowhead Stadium was the best option in the early years for the team to ensure they weren't going to collapse before spending the necessary money to build their own digs. Paying rent to an NFL stadium is a far easier deal to back out of than a multi-million dollar home of your own if MLS went under. So the necessity of playing in too large of a venue is understandable, but the eventual move away and the success that's followed was timely and necessary for the club's growth.

K-League finds itself in a very similar position right now with stadium capacity far exceeding the average attendance. While it's commendable city governments and the league have found ways to reuse the often abandoned World Cup and Olympic venues of years past, it's at a point where it's hurting the potential popularity of the sport. League wide there's an average of nearly 29,000 empty seats per game. That's higher than the total capacity of four of the Classic stadiums and it has a dramatic effect on the fan experience. Here are the attendance figures for 2015:

TeamTotalHighLowAverageCapacity
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors330,85631,1924,92817,41342,477
FC Seoul326,26939,3284,26717,17266,806
Suwon Samsung Bluewings250,70229,0466,53813,19543,959
Pohang Steelers175,52019,2273,3549,23817,443
Jeju United117,75420,0131,0116,54235,657
Ulsan Hyundai119,30918,0311,5246,27944,102
Seongnam FC107,61912,1871,5935,66416,000
Incheon United97,25010,7041,6234,86320,891
Jeonnam Dragons82,40712,6086284,33714,284
Busan IPark63,4409,1231,1873,33953,926
Daejeon Citizen47,37011,8577632,49340,535
Gwangju FC41,5673,1171,0622,18844,118
League Averages146,67218,0362,3737,72736,683

Easily the hardest hit by this predicament is Busan IPark, who played all but one of their home matches in the colossal 53,926-seater Asiad Main Stadium. Complete with a running track to further obscure views, there's absolutely zero chance the average of 3,339 fans are going to make enough noise and create enough of an atmosphere to fill the void of 50,000 empty seats. I've been to games here. It's impossible not to notice the boundless emptiness that surrounds you while trying to focus on the match. So they find themselves in a similar spot SKC was in during the late 2000s with a building far too big for their britches and in need of a move. That's likely why the club's already started playing some matches at the 12,349 capacity Gudeok Stadium across town. It could be argued that if attendance stays the same that's still 9,000 empty seats per game. As of right now they can fit the entire population of Taebaek into the empty seats at the Asiad, so I think they'd gladly deal with 9,000. That's also operating under the assumption attendance will stagnate, which it very well may not with the more intimate and apropos Gudeok as a home ground. As Jae-Hyeok Lee went over in great detail back in November, there's still a lot to be desired at Gudeok, but it would at least be a step in the right direction.

Yet even if Busan makes all the renovations to Gudeok and has a lovely new home, that still leaves a glut of empty seats throughout the country. League giants FC Seoul aren't immune and regularly play with 49,000+ empty. Additionally, Gwangju FC (41,930), Daejeon Citizen (38,042), Ulsan Hyundai (37,823), and Suwon Samsung Bluewings (30,764) all play with over 30,000 unused. Jeju's World Cup stadium barely misses the mark at 29,115 vacant seats per game. Only Jeonnam (9,947) and Pohang (8,205) ring in under 10,000 empty per game. When the number of unused seats outnumbers fans by an average of 5 to 1 any amount of joy or rambunctiousness is going to be drown out by the crushing anchor of silence. And this is something no amount of free tickets can change. It's just not enjoyable hanging out with that many ghost chairs.

It's a far better experience for fans and players alike to be in a soccer specific stadium. Instead of playing in a place that offers little more than a flat surface to play on, SSS's are built with fan comfort, convenience, and - most importantly - sightlines in mind. Gone are the upper deck seats challenging a fan's visual capabilities far more than any merciful optometrist would dare. Gone are the running tracks of multi-purpose stadiums that plague a number of K-League Classic, and nearly all K-League Challenge stadiums which make connecting to the action on the field a hopeless undertaking at times. With SSS's fans are close enough to the game to hear the sound of the ball hit for a proper pass, players barking instructions to one another, and the net bulging from a goal. Ok... maybe not the net... but you get the idea. For a league struggling as mightily with attendance as the K-League is, these are some of the things that need to be in place for home games to make people want to come back.

Fan experience alone may not be enough to convince owners to spend on a new stadium, but there are also perks for the players. The first major benefit is having top priority at the stadium. This means scheduling, ad space (hello Suwon Samsung vs Suwon World Cup Stadium), and any additional events the venue will take on. Last year Gwangju FC was forced to play a slew of away games in a row because the Gwagnju World Cup stadium was being used for the 2015 Summer Universiade; a multi-sport university athletics tournament that left their field in appallingly rough shape. So not only were they at a disadvantage by having to play more frequently on the road (where nearly every team in the league has a lower win rate), but when they returned home their field was almost unplayable and offered zero advantage to them. Secondly, SSS's have yielded results in MLS. Three years after moving into the league's first SSS, Columbus Crew won the 2002 US Open Cup and in 2008 were MLS Champions. The Colorado Rapids won the 2010 MLS Cup a scant three years after moving into their SSS. And Sporting Kansas City won the MLS Cup just two years after moving into Sporting Park. Obviously building a soccer specific stadium won't guarantee titles, but MLS teams have proved that they certainly help.

With all of that said, stadiums alone won't be the answer to the league's attendance problems. My Jeonnam Dragons play in a soccer specific stadium with a fitting capacity and are still near the bottom in attendance. I mean... I was at the 628 person game... I know what the low point looks like. Having the appropriately sized stadium doesn't mean jack if the people in the community don't know about or don't care about what's happening within the grounds. But there are some rather simple things MLS is doing that K-League could mimic to further help attendance and they'll be poured over in great detail in Part 2.

4 comments

  1. Tough one this. Would be great to have grounds without running tracks but in all honesty the last thing Korean cities need to do is throw even more funding at construction projects for stadia that nobody attends.

    Incheon has near-bankrupted itself and yet less than 5000 people go to their shiny new SSS. Daegu are about to do that same.

    I'd rather look at ways to improve the atmosphere in the existing stadia first - good steps were taken with temporary stands, cheerleaders, closing parts of grounds etc.

    What a waste it would be to leave the WC stadia to rot to build more new football grounds.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, I had a bit in there about FC Seoul's tarps in the upper deck and how they kind of add to the atmosphere. Wound up taking it out, but it's definitely a great way to dress up oversized stadiums a bit. An MLS example is what they do at BC Place in Vancouver (http://bit.ly/20JOY3J). In hindsight, probably should've added that as another option. C'est la vie.

      Temp stands are also a good way around low attendance... just better versions than they've done at Asiad I hope. I probably should've been more clear that this was the pipe dream of things to learn and something that won't be done for a while.

      As far as improving the atmosphere in the existing stadiums, there'll be plenty of that in the other posts.

      Delete
  2. Where could K-League find the budget for building new stadium?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Just posted one potential way to pay for new stadiums: http://bit.ly/1R4dvZj

      Delete

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