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Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS Part 4

(image via espnfc.com)
There is no small part of me cringing at having "Man City Jr." as the image for this, the fourth installment of Six Things K-League Can Learn From MLS. But, after looking at Soccer Specific Stadiums, Marketing, and Supporters Sections mainly from a fan perspective, the focus for the next two posts is decidedly more business oriented and league focused. And New York City FC happens to perfectly epitomize the focus for Part 4: Foreign Investment.

Not always the most popular, nor the most successful even in MLS (hello Chivas USA), when done well foreign investment of the highest order has its benefits. Before diving into NYCFC, City Football Group, and all that jazz, let's take a closer look at the red half of New York, the Red Bulls. Go ahead and call them the New York Energy Drinks or whatever (far better) nickname you want. It is a goofy name. But it's not much worse than Suwon Samsung Bluewings or Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, so it's not like there wouldn't be precedent for a slightly goofy corporate name in K-League. Regardless of the mascot, it's impossible to ignore what the Austrian-based company has done for their MLS team. Perhaps the easiest thing to notice was the construction of Red Bull Arena. A gorgeous 25,000 capacity Soccer Specific Stadium that finally got one of MLS' flagship franchises out of the ridiculously over-sized 80,242 capacity Giants Stadium. For a team that had averaged roughly 63,000 empty seats for their first 14 years the move surely made home games far more enjoyable for everyone involved. In fact, the move has seen an increase in average attendance by about 2,000 people per year to roughly 19,000 per game. An increase that has no doubt kicked back some of the $200 million Red Bull spent to build the arena. (Additional benefits of a SSS were gone over in great detail in Part 1, so I'll stop here with all the stadium talk.)

On top of throwing down a large chunk of cash to build one of the USA's soccer gems (with help from the city it should be noted), the Red Bull ownership was also one of the first MLS clubs to truly focus on youth development with their academy. This participant cost-free program trains youth players at least three times a week with a minimum of two games supervised by professional staff. Tryouts are free as well. It's obviously a major perk for New York's youth development, but the overall goal of the academy is to benefit the first team, and it's already paid dividends. Though not a household name, Juan Agudelo is a 23-year-old RBNY Academy product with 20 caps for the United States Men's National Team... who now plays elsewhere. Still in house is Sean Davis, who made his mark by scoring twice against EPL Champions Chelsea in a 4-2 win in the 2015 International Champions Cup. Granted, that "tournament" likely means less to Chelsea than John Terry's 2017 prospects, but putting a brace past Courtois on any day is pretty special. Something that certainly matters more to Chelsea is the future of their back line, which is why they recently signed RBNY Academy alum and US International Matt Miazga. The move brought in a cool $5 million for the Red Bulls and with Miazga being the first American signed by Chelsea it shows that the RBNY Academy is indeed cultivating world class talent.

This isn't to suggest Korean clubs aren't spending on academies, because they are. According to Goal.com's Steve Han, "K League clubs in total have been spending approximately $12 million a year on their U14, U16 and U18 youth setups that have been required for all clubs for the last few years. That's a significant amount considering how much the clubs, including the corporate owned ones, have streamlined their budget." Even for league giants like Jeonbuk who are believed to spend roughly $30 to $40 million annually, that's a large chunk of change. For government/citizen stockholder teams like Daejeon, Gwangju, Seongnam, and Suwon FC in Classic, that's an overwhelming number. While I wouldn't be a fan of the entire league being owned by different corporations, having one or two foreign invested teams could help fund meaningful projects like academies and compelling ones like new stadiums. Both projects (though obviously more so the academies) will have a positive effect for football here in Korea. Instead of taxpayers footing the bill for a new stadium or renovations, a company like Red Bull can pay for it, like they did for RBNY. Instead of the city government shelling out millions to develop local players, let the foreign company pay for it. More resources from foreign investors means more talented Korean players will not only be found, but properly trained to maximize their skills. This is especially true with the roster limitations currently in place in K-League. With a maximum of four foreign roster spots per team (and one of those being an Asian player), the focus of this investment will assuredly be Korea first and other Asian nations second. This ensures the money spent will raise the level of domestic soccer with proper academies producing better players, which in turn will raise the level of league play and eventually benefit the national team.

Even with an improved standard of play K-League won't quite be a direct stepping stone to the biggest leagues worldwide, and that's where having an owner like Red Bull comes in handy yet again. With clubs in Austria, Brazil, Germany, and the United States they can loan players to sister clubs to gain experience, train with other coaches, and get a taste of living abroad all under the same ownership. This is something City Football Group has taken to the next level. Not only do they have clubs spread across the globe, but they also have training/scouting partnerships in Denmark, Ghana, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, and the US. They even have work permit clubs in Scandinavia where they can loan youth players from non-EU countries who would otherwise need five years of residence in the UK to earn an EU passport. A nice little work-around that would grant Korean players the ability to play in the UK without needing a work permit. If those benefits weren't enough, CFG also offers the additional bonus of a considerable presence already here in Asia. With Melbourne City in A-League and Yokohama F. Marinos in J-League, CFG would be able to loan or sell Korean players to fellow Asian leagues with more ease due to similar "Asian player" roster spots that K-League has. Perhaps most importantly for player development, if CFG's running the show it's guaranteed the Mother Ship over in Manchester will have an eye on the best and brightest youngsters coming through the system which provides a great opportunity for players to eventually play at one of the world's top clubs.

Korean players with a direct pipeline to Manchester City, international loan opportunities, and EU visas are all well and good for individual players and the pocketbook of the club, but is that enough of a benefit to K-League as a whole to consider foreign investors? Perhaps not, but the league wide benefits of a company like Red Bull or CFG aren't strictly focused on exports. In MLS the two clubs have been responsible for importing some of the biggest marquee names the league has seen. Tim Cahill and Thierry Henry were both brought in by Red Bull and had huge impacts on the league. Yes, both players were north of 30 when they came over, and Cahill's goal returns were a bit disappointing, but both were internationally recognized names that put asses in seats and eyes on TVs. Moreover, it's not like being a footballer over 30 is a death sentence. Henry netted 51 goals in 122 appearances, and Cahill went on to represent and play quite well for the Socceroos in the 2014 World Cup (including one of the goals of the tournament) and the 2015 AFC Asian Cup champions side. The blue half of New York started their inaugural year with David Villa as the face of the franchise along with USMNT regular Mix Diskerud and summer support from Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo. Pirlo was linked to both Liverpool and Chelsea last summer and started in the 2015 UEFA Champions League Final, so it's not exactly like NYCFC picked up some unwanted slouch. On the field, Villa netted 18 times to lead the team in goals, and Lampard... well... Lampard was a bit of a disaster all around... but he sold some jerseys I'm sure. More importantly, signing Villa from the 2013/14 La Liga champs Atlético Madrid and Pirlo from four-peat Serie A Champions Juventus put NYCFC and MLS on the map in a way it previously hadn't been. The signings excited the fanbase of the team and the league and sold more tickets not only in New York, but across the US with fans wanting to come out and see the European stars they had watched for years. The same effect also rippled across jersey sales and TV viewership as well.

Outside of the obvious marketing benefits of these guys, signing players well into their 30s — even defending champions from two of the world's top five leagues — doesn't exactly dissuade the perception of being a "retirement league." Many forget this is the exact strategy the EPL used in the 90s to get aged Serie A stars to England and raise the league's profile, and things seem to be going pretty well for that league... but I digress. With foreign investors like Red Bull and CFG leading the way, MLS decided to spend on well known names and it's led to a higher global presence. The higher reputation has led to other teams throughout the league signing players like Keane and Gerrard in LA, Kaká in Orlando, and Drogba in Montreal to further the league's global reach. In turn, these big name marquee signings have helped pave the way for younger talents like Michael Bradley (28), Giovani dos Santos (26), and runaway 2015 MLS MVP Sebastian Giovinco (29) to come to MLS and push it past the "retirement league" status and into the next stage of its evolution. It's been a slow process for MLS, and there's still a long way to go, but without teams like NYCFC and Red Bulls splashing cash to sign well known names it's debatable whether or not the league would be where it is now.

Even if you don't buy the "big name stars" argument (and there are many who don't), there are still benefits for foreign investors in K-League. Namely that they could somewhat compete with the surging Chinese Super League for Korean talent. With the CSL spending $46 million for former Atletico Madrid striker Jackson Martinez to move to Guangzhou Evergrande there are few in the world who can compete for truly top tier talent. However, players like Yoon Bit-garam and Kim Seung-dae may have been retained by K-League clubs backed by the likes of Red Bull or CFG. Admittedly that's a pretty big maybe, but it couldn't hurt. Even if foreign investors can't fend off the CSL, what they could certainly help K-League do is become the next step for Southeast Asian talents like Incheon United's newly signed midfielder Lương Xuân Trường from Vietnam. FourFourTwo's John Duerden recently wrote a fantastic piece about Trường's potential and what his success could mean for Southeast Asia and K-League, so I won't go into much more detail about him here. The gist is that he's one of many that could see Korea as a logical step up from underperforming Southeast Asian leagues and use up the all important Asian player roster spot.

It could (probably quite rightly) be argued that K-League doesn't need foreign investment dollars to lure the likes of Trường to Korea. It could also be argued that Korean companies should keep control of Korean teams. Maybe the idea of a foreign company owning the team is just a bit too much to bear for folks. I understand the argument. What I don't understand is the lack of any foreign companies as jersey sponsors. At the very least taking some foreign companies (hopefully) hard earned cash to put their logo on your team's chest for a year or two isn't too much to ask. It's great to have so many Korean companies represented, but when shirt sponsors are the city itself, it's a bit redundant and isn't exactly bringing in money. For example, let's take a look at Daejeon's kit from 2015.

As a city/citizen stockholder owned team, I understand why the Daejeon tourism board wanted the city advertised in equal measure as Hana Bank... but... come on. Daejeon Citizen kits sponsored by Daejeon? That can't be generating much cash for the team. Yes, Hana Bank is obviously chipping in a bit to have their name on there, but why not branch out a bit and get a foreign company trying to spread their brand in Korea? As an Everton fan who proudly reps Chang Beer every time I put on my jersey, I'm quite familiar with foreign company logos on a team's kit. Hell, ThaiBev (the owners of Chang) have money to spare, maybe they'd like to make a push in the Korean market and sponsor a K-League team's kit. Maybe Tiger beer wants to make a similar push, or Singha, or Tsingtao, etc. It certainly doesn't have to be limited to beer either. Pair a foreign sponsorship with a foreign player and you have a potential money making machine. As Duerden notes in his piece, the marketing benefits alone of a player making it big in their home country is worth the risk of signing them for K-League teams. Having Incheon jerseys plastered all over billboards in Vietnam is an amazingly easy way to spread the brand of K-League and jersey sponsors at the same time. There's no reason Incheon shouldn't be on the phone right now with Vietcombank (or some equally large company) negotiating a lovely kit sponsorship fee to have their logo on every ad featuring the new star.

If not Incheon, and if not a Southeast Asian star, at the very least non-chaebol owned teams should be looking to foreign shores to bring some money into the league. As it stands now all of the money spent in the league is derived from Korean sources and it's not exactly catapulting the league into a new stratosphere. K-League's well behind J-League and the CSL and its position at the top of the Asian leagues could continue to slide if current trends continue. Maybe it's time to kick the tires on having a foreign run team. If nothing else, a sizable benefit of having a company like CFG own and operate a team like they do in MLS is that they know how to run a football club. Some owners are doing it well here in Korea, but a good number aren't. As pointed out in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, many K-League teams are simply spending money for the sake of it and have no idea how to market nor run a soccer team.  Foreign investors like CFG's sole business is running football clubs and I would have to believe they'd do a better job than a struggling steel manufacturer or apathetic city board, right? Isn't it at least worth a shot to find out?

But if the league allows conglomerates like CFG to come in and run a club, what's to separate the haves from the have nots? How do you ensure some level of parity in an already unequal playing field? Check back for Part 5 for one potential solution.

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