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Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS Part 3

From the unlikely dream of Soccer Specific Stadiums in Part 1 to the "how are you not doing these things?" marketing ideas in Part 2 the focus of Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS thus far has been fan engagement. Here in Part 3 we get to the heart of fan engagement: Supporters Sections. These are the ultras who don't stop singing, don't sit, and don't abandon their team no matter the scoreline. Personally, these are the people that got me into MLS and are the same folks that will carry it into whatever step is next. As former Fire player and head coach Frank Klopas put it, "I always understood the fans. Like I’ve said, they’re the life blood of any organization."
(Section 8 Chicago image via wikimedia.org)

That life blood is sadly lacking for many a K-League club. The absence of supporters is one of the things that makes going to a K-League game such a hard sell for the casual fan. But there are a number of things teams and the league can do to cultivate and grow authentic ultras. Before going any further, Suwon, Jeonbuk, and FC Seoul fans can go ahead and skip this section. I mean... I'd rather you didn't, but your team has this down and needs very little help. The rest of us however... yikes. It's not that there aren't a few fans trying to get it going at every match, but they're up against cavernous stadiums, lack of numbers, and apathetic fans. Far too many spectators at K-League games are there for a cheap picnic with cheap entertainment and barely pay attention to the game. Now... don't get me wrong, the relaxed atmosphere at Korean sporting events is one of my favorite things. Especially the bringing in your own beer part. And there's certainly an important role to be filled by the casual fan attending games, but it's a problem when more than half the fans are turning up simply to turn up and couldn't care less about the game taking place before them.

Enter supporters sections.

The MLS has a slew of highly visible, profoundly loud, and flat out fun supporters sections raising the bar of the in stadium atmosphere. Timbers ArmyEmerald City Supporters, and my beloved Section 8 Chicago are a few examples of passionate people elevating the game for their clubs. Unlike most American sports, soccer doesn't have "Make Some NOISE!!" graphics come across the jumbotron, cheerleaders, or other gimmicks to get people involved. It's up to the supporters to dictate the volume and set the tempo for the players on the pitch. The songs, passion, and energy are something that further drives the bond between fan and club and is infectious. It makes the casual fan feel more connected to those around them and more likely to join in chants, or simply pay attention and cheer for the game. This infectious energy is something I regularly used to get friends out to Toyota Park to watch the Chicago Fire for the first time. Taking a tip from the Free Beer Movement, I offered up a free beer and a seat in Section 8 for friends who were either curious about MLS or were sports fans who hadn't seen the Fire live yet. I'm not going to say it was a 100% success rate to turn every friend into an avid supporter, but quite a few started following the team more closely and just about every single one had a great time. I've thought of doing this here, but bringing in already cheap Cass or Hite doesn't exactly entice casual fans. And no amount of free beer can make up for the lack of atmosphere in most K-League stadiums.

A handful of K-League teams have this down, but the majority don't and I doubt many have it worse than my Jeonnam Dragons. Here in Gwangyang the "official" supporters section is usually comprised of about 10-15 people with one drum and a flag or two. That right there is how you get started for many teams, but there are issues far beyond numbers. Namely, half of the supporters are children aged 13 or under. Much like the casual fan having a picnic at the match, there's nothing inherently wrong with kids being part of a supporters group. Quite the opposite really. The next generations of supporters should be represented. The issue again comes with the percentage of the group they take up. Not only are there a number of youngins behind the North goal, but the Dragons youth teams from U-20 all the way down to U-12 sit right next to the supporters section. In the end this results in what should be one of the most raucous and rowdy sections feeling more like the children's zone. I don't exactly feel comfortable with the idea of drinking beer and chanting profanities at visiting teams while surrounded by so many young and impressionable minds. Especially when considering I teach here and number of them are my students.

So why not just leave the beer at home and have a good, clean, family friendly supporters section then, right? I mean... there are a number of reasons... but it's still possible. I don't have to be drunk or even buzzed to stand up and sing at a match, and I certainly don't need to yell profane things at the opposing team... no matter how much they deserve it. Well, the real reason that's not possible is inner stadium competition from company employees.

See that circled section that's all blocked off in yellow? That section's usually filled to the gills and looks good on TV. Hell, the untrained eye might even think that's the "official" supporters section. That untrained eye would be horrifyingly wrong. That section is paid employees by the team's owner POSCO getting paid overtime to show up for the game. That's right, on top of the free tickets already allotted to many POSCO employees, these fine folks are paid a little extra to show up and "cheer" on their home team. Every home game a different department from the local steelyard is paid to come to the game and mimic whatever their manager shouts into a megaphone. These efforts are never coordinated with the "official" supporters group, rarely have anything to do with what's happening on the field, and often compete directly for audio space with the dozen actual supporters trying to drown out the children's section. The result is the overtime crew coming off like the "Make Some NOISE!!" jumbotron messages that mercifully are usually absent from soccer. They're more corporate gimmick than fervor. It's a prime example of a large corporation not at all understanding what it means to run a football club and simply throwing money at an issue in all the wrong ways. While I don't love it, I do understand the logic of paying employees a bit extra to make the stadium look better on TV. That's why Jeonnam's not the only team to pay employees to pose as ultras. But it's completely devoid of authenticity and results in a further weakened supporters section, which in turn results in a weakened in-stadium experience, which results in weakened ticket sales.

Meanwhile, MLS continues to embrace and get smarter with their supporters. Just this year the Houston Dynamo created a new and expanded supporters section to allow for their multiple groups to better work together and grow. The Colorado Rapids gave their supporters free tickets to hand out for less than marquee match ups. Teams like Toronto FC have not only paid for tickets to an away match for supporters, but even hired 10 buses to take 500 fans to and from the game. The Chicago Fire's new kit sponsor, Valspar, has agreed to donate paint to the supporters to make TIFO and already held an event to get things started. These are not things that are beyond K-League clubs current capabilities. Maybe the expanded section... but a lack of space isn't really the issue. Sticking with Section 8 in Chicago, adding something akin to The Harlem End signs behind supporters sections in K-League would go a long way to show that the club cares about the supporters role in the organization and would create a better atmosphere. As discussed in Part 1, we know there are plenty of empty seats that could be tarped over with such signage. At the very least, instead of paying indifferent employees overtime to simply be an ass in a seat, K-League clubs would do better to identify organic ultras and help them grow. Do what MLS has done and give the leader groups free tickets to hand out each week. Find a local pub that will show away games and buy the supporters a round of beer (or two). Help fund TIFO projects and give them a space to make the banners. Invite them to some of the private events mentioned in Part 2. Just... do something to embrace true supporters instead of trying to buy them.

As it stands, any K-League supporters group trying to galvanize the crowd or team is already up against often gargantuan stadiums and an apathetic fanbase. If the K-League and its teams embraced and truly backed supporters sections, not only would they sell more tickets, but yet another large portion of their marketing would already be done for them. For years now the MLS has been pushing the fan experience and highlighting supporters sections in their video promos. They did this in a 2012 ad when they signed a new deal with NBC, and again in a promo last year when they signed a much bigger deal with ESPN and Fox Sports. Watch those videos and count how many times they show shots of the stadium. They're not only selling the play on the field, but the experience fans will have watching in person. Right now not even a handful of K-League clubs can offer both and that's simply not good enough to attract new fans and keep them coming back.

While these ideas may sound good (or maybe they don't... that's what the comments section's for), they do require some investment from clubs and/or the league. Being on the outside I'd like to think many of these things are possible to implement at a very minimal cost, but I can't be certain. So where's the money going to come from? Well... check back here tomorrow and read Part 4 for one potential answer.


  1. A local pub that will show away games??? They'd have to actually be on TV first! ;)

    Actually with them all being streamed online it would be great to set up something at the stadiums to watch the away matches - only issue might be that since clubs don't own the grounds they'd maybe have to rent the space again.

    I liked E-Lands thinking to provide something for fans at Jamsil last season but wasn't sure about the execution at times. Some of the things they chose to do seemed a bit daft, to me anyway. I guess a lot of it comes down to how much budget is there to make game days exciting. You also need to get people to come in the first place for any of it to actually work.

    1. Ugh... yeah... the TV listings. But, like you said, SpoTV and Naver did a solid job with the streams last year, so a pub would only need internet access.

      As far as showing things at the stadium, we could get super fancy and dream of a team store at the stadium that doubles as a pub and shows the away games! Could also serve as the meeting place for supporters before and after the game.

      But... as you said, a lot of it comes down to budget and attendance. It's a bit of a chicken and egg situation of if people don't come because there's no marketing or if there's no marketing because people don't come. Personally, I'd run the risk of being wrong and try some of the marketing techniques if I were running a team... but I'm certainly not doing that. Yet. ;)


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