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Bums On Seats, The Biggest Challenge (Part 2 - What's The Problem?)

Empty seats - an all-too-familiar sight for the K-League Challenge viewer
In the first part of what might become an exceedingly long and overly geeky look at the marketing challenges for Seoul E-Land (and other K-League teams) I pointed out the gap between the goals of the club and the reality in terms of attendances. Since my day job for the past few years (before I decided to render myself unemployed in order to follow the ups and downs of lower league Korean football) was in marketing, and since I now teach this sort of thing for a (temporary) living, I thought it might be interesting to cast an 'expert' eye over the situation and try to give a bit of an objective analysis of the situation.

If we are going to try to do this in a logical way then any marketing analysis of Korean football should start with an overall assessment of the current situation and the marketing environment that the club finds itself in. In other words we need to look at whether there is a problem and what the problem is before we start coming up with solutions. While I'm taking E-Land as a case study here it's fair to say that a lot of the things mentioned will apply equally to most K-League sides so it's also worth looking at the factors that affect football in Korea overall (the macro-environment to use the technical term)  and the things that are more or less specific to E-Land (the micro-environment) before trying to put together a marketing strategy for the club.

Is there really a problem?

Before we start offering suggestions it's probably worth establishing whether there actually is a problem. Let's remember that E-Land is a brand new team in a country that isn't exactly renown for coming out to support their local club sides. A 1st year average attendance of 1,800 perhaps isn't that bad at all? After all, it was the 3rd biggest average in the league and a lot more than some clubs that have been around for years.

There's certainly a case to be made that in the big scheme of things 1,800 in the first season isn't too shabby and it's a respectable base to grow from. If we put aside the wildly optimistic suggestions from E-Land pre-launch of averaging 10,000 crowds in the Challenge and just look at E-Land as we would any other club then it's a reasonably solid performance.

E-Land managed the 3rd largest attendance of all Challenge clubs in their first year in existence
However, if you start to look a bit closer at the numbers I would say there is at least some reason to be concerned and if I was a board member of E-Land Group I would probably be asking some questions about the attendance figures. After all, there is at least some chance that they weren't joking when they said that they expected five-figure attendances at Jamsil in a pretty short timescale. Given that E-Land are a brand new side it's difficult to judge exactly what could have been expected in the first year but there's at least two questions to consider.

Is 1,800 a reasonable average attendance for the club?

Based on raw data 1,800 in the Challenge looks like a decent attendance but when you look at the attendance as a percentage of catchment area things don't look quite so positive. Based on the best estimates I could find of the relative populations of the cities and regions the Challenge teams represent then E-Land have by far the lowest percentage of their catchment area attending matches. It might be slightly unfair to consider the entire ten million Seoul inhabitants as their catchment area but even taking a more reasonable estimate of 2.5 million living South of the Han within 30 minutes or so of the stadium things still look pretty bleak.

Depending on how you calculate it Seoul E-Land are either 11th or 12th by % of population attending
Based on the more favourable comparison, E-Land edge ahead of Gyeongnam on this measure but bearing in mind the huge area covered by Gyeongsangnam-do Province that's hardly anything to write home about. Getting across the province can mean a few hours in a car rather than 20 minutes on a subway train to get to Jamsil. To compensate, Gyeongnam also move their games around the province from time to time.

If E-Land could match the turnout percentage of Anyang, for example, they could expect to see something in the region of 7,000 on average (based on a 2.5m catchment). Maybe that's an unfair comparison as Anyang is a one-team town whereas E-Land have to compete with the big baddies on the other side of the river? Even if we take Suwon as the comparison though we would still expect to see about 1,000 more bodies inside Jamsil every week.

Based on these numbers I would have thought that a reasonable target for E-Land would have been in the 3-4,000 range. I would certainly have expected them to be the best supported team in the Challenge. So, given all of that I think we would have to conclude that there is a problem. I can already hear people saying 'but it's only their first season, these other teams have been around for years' though - so let's take a look at that too then.

Is 1,800 a good base to grow the support from and can we expect things to improve?

From tiny acorns great oak trees grow and all that, so maybe this is the start of something big? You can't expect success overnight and the plan was always to build up the support over time. This is exactly what other successful sides have done in other parts of the world (many of the same ones that E-Land modelled themselves on) so it's certainly not impossible to grow a club over time. To get a sense of the answer to this one I think it's useful to look at a number of things - how have other new clubs in Korea fared, how have the teams that E-Land benchmarked themselves against overseas fared and, finally, how have things progressed at E-Land since the start of last season.

Trying to get a handle on how the K-League 'expansion' teams have performed with regards crowds is a bit difficult as there have been so many changes during the period but we can make an attempt by looking at Gwangju, Sangju and Gangwon as examples.

Most new teams start out well and then tail off
The trend seems to be fairly clear that all three of these clubs have seen steep declines in attendance since they began. To get a comparison against the K-League overall I took the average of the 10 clubs that have never been relegated from the top division. You can see from the chart that attendances have dropped overall but nowhere near as sharply. Of course this is probably exacerbated by the fact that all three clubs have struggled and found themselves dropping out of the top division

The Challenge teams have mostly all been around in some previous form and show little growth
Looking at the new teams in the K-League Challenge its hard to get a clear picture of any trend but it's safe to say that only Ansan have shown any really significant growth season-on-season (and maybe Suwon to a lesser extent). Overall though the picture doesn't look too promising for the idea that teams will grow naturally.

How does this picture compare with some of the teams that E-Land modelled themselves upon? Let's look at the attendance figures for Seattle Sounders, RB Leipzig and Western Sydney Wanderers as a comparison of what kind of growth might be achieved by a new football team. I've also thrown Martin Rennie's old side Vancouver into the mix as well.

Most new teams in other leagues have started off big and gotten bigger or held steady. RB Leipzig the exception
There's a bit of hope here but not too much. The Sounders have done a fairly impressive job of growing their fanbase over the years but they also managed to start from a high base. Vancouver experienced a big jump in attendance when they became an MLS team but very little if any growth since, and the same can be said of WSW who have more or less held flat since their inception. The only real rags to riches growth story is that of RB Leipzig but that's very much helped by their climb through the leagues in a country with a strong football supporting tradition. I suppose that's about as close to the model E-Land are hoping to follow as we can get though so there's at least some evidence that you can build a football team from (almost) scratch and get crowds to come eventually. It helps if you have Red Bull's marketing money behind you but, at least in K-League terms a giant company like E-Land would be able to pull that off if they really wanted to.

The last thing to look at then is overall progress of E-Land attendances since they started. This probably paints the most worrying picture for me.

E-Land's attendances have seen a steady downward trend since the start of 2015
Looking at each home gate for 2015 seems to show that rather than building momentum the fans have slowly trickled away from the Olympic Stadium with a steady downward trend since the opening day. That high day one attendance makes the trend look worse than it maybe is, but even without that outlier the trend is still steadily downwards.

For just about every K-League team the opening day attendance will be hugely inflated (for any number of reasons) so every club shows the same trend based on the raw numbers and it makes more sense to exclude those. I carried out the same analysis for Daegu to provide a reference and if you include the opening day and closing day peaks then the same downward trend appears but if you exclude them then the average across the 'typical' season games was flat at around 1,500.

The biggest worry for E-Land comes when you look at the start of the 2016 season - albeit we are only two games in - and see that the crowds seem to have dropped even lower still

The red line shows the 2016 attendances and how they match up to 2015 - not well.
If history is any indicator then that opening day attendance of around 2,500 is likely to be the biggest league crowd that E-Land will achieve this season. The 1,200 at the Daejeon match much more likely to be typical of a weekend attendance and midweek games even lower still. There's a real danger that, unless something changes, the season average might well dip into 3 figures. Alarm bells should surely be ringing at E-Land HQ.

I think the case has been made then that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. It's still early enough in the history of the team that things can be done to stop the rot but it will take some swift action and a change of approach in some places to bring the fans in. The question perhaps is whether two years later E-Land still have the same zeal to see this project through to completion or whether they will move on to something new. They already have a track record of this with E-Land Puma which was dissolved after a six-year history but I'd like to think that they are more committed this time around. The potential is surely there for a second successful team in Seoul and E-Land should be able to make it a success. The alternative is to become another Goyang and suffer a Walking Dead style existence of merely surviving without anyone noticing or caring.

In the next couple of parts I will look at my thoughts on why the crowds are so low and what can be done to improve the situation. In the meantime, if you have any comments, thoughts or would like to offer me a marketing job so I don't have to spend my time doing this then please leave a message below. 

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