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Bums On Seats, The Biggest Challenge (Part 3 - How To Compete?)

We all know the Korean fans love football, right? (Any excuse to publish this photo really)
In Part 3 of this series (that maybe I am the only one interested in) I will turn my attention to looking at the competitive environment for E-Land and try to come up with an approach that might prove successful for them in trying to drive up their crowds. To do this we need to look at some of the realities (and myths) facing K-League teams in general and E-Land in particular in trying to grow their clubs. It's certainly no easy task and the scale of the challenges shouldn't be underestimated, especially in the current economic climate. Let's give it a bash anyway, though, and start off by looking at a few of the things E-Land will need to find a way to overcome.

1. Korean people aren't actually that interested in football.

Or at least they aren't actually that interested in attending live games featuring their local teams. On the face of it, it seems slightly ridiculous to say that. Anyone who has watched Korea play in the World Cup knows that Koreans are some of the most passionate football supporters anywhere, right? Plus we all know that they follow the EPL, La Liga and Bundesliga with more dedication than many in their home countries do. And amongst the guys who do go to the K-League games you'll find some of the biggest football fans in the world. Something doesn't quite add up then.

Take a close look though and it starts to make sense. First of all there is a segment of Korea that is passionate about football. These are the guys who go to K-League games, who bring their drums and flags and chant and cheer for 90 minutes and cry when their team loses. The problem is that isn't all that big. Look at the stats for the percentage of population attending the games in respective leagues around the world and you'll see South Korea is way down the list.

Per head of population attendances at K-League matches are pretty low.
It's not completely hopeless though as they still seem to be better off than the USA and China but both of those are huge countries where club football is still something of a minority sport. Those figures are also from 2012 and both those countries have progressed in that time.

So what about those huge NT attendances and all the guys watching EPL games? The reality is that very few of them are interested in watching K-League. They can get swept up in national fervour cheering on the NT or watching a celebrity Korean footballer playing in the glamourous European leagues and they may even turn out for a special occasion at their local team but the idea of watching K-League on a weekly basis has no appeal. I've lost count of the number of Korean 'football fans' I have met who have told me they support Barcelona, Bayern Munich or AC Milan but I don't remember ever meeting one outside of a stadium who told me they support Daejeon Citizen or Incheon United. The most common line I hear is 'the K-League is rubbish' and whether that opinion is based correct or not it certainly seems to be the prevailing perception.

Any strategy that is based on the idea that there is an untapped pool of passionate football fans in Korea just waiting for a team to support is probably doomed to failure then. A successful team is going to have to broaden it's appeal beyond that hardcore support. However, just to make it worse, there's another huge elephant in the room, which is...

2. Baseball dominates absolutely everything

You only have to turn on any sports channel in Korea to realise the extent to which baseball dominates the Korean sporting scene. It's generally given wall to wall coverage with even multiple stations covering the same game at times while even the biggest K-League matches will be consigned to KBS Sports 47 at 2.15pm on a Tuesday, Go to the stadiums and it's the same story.

Lotte Giants average attendance is almost 5 times that of Busan I'Park despite playing far far many more games
This year the KBO are targeting 8 million in total attendance for the rounders while the football will be delighted to get 2 million. Of course comparisons are difficult at times because the baseball teams simply play so many more games over a season but have fewer teams. Even so the average attendance at a KBO match is around 11,000 while in the K-League Classic it's less than 8000. When you consider the relative proportions of midweek matches in the two leagues you will also appreciate that on a typical weekend baseball attendances are far in excess of those at the football.

It should also be remembered that a lot of the same issues facing the K-League are shared by the KBO. It's not as if Korean baseball is of a shockingly high standard compared and it also has to compete with the MLB (and increasingly some superstars of Korea playing there) being beamed into people's homes. Nevertheless it seems that many Koreans are in the habit of attending baseball matches regardless of what's on show. That's a habit that doesn't seem to be shared by the K-League and it would appear that the football has a lot to learn from baseball in terms of attracting and retaining paying fans.

And, of course, it's even worse for E-Land as their home is based right in the heart of baseball-land at Jamsil and you have to physically walk past the baseball stadium to get to the football. Not only that but since there are two rounders sides based there you can more or less guarantee that there will be a game happening on the same day as the football match. I have no idea how many LG Twins or Doosan Bears fans might also follow Seoul E-Land (or vice-versa) but there might be one or two clues when looking at the data.

Scheduling around the baseball might have a big effect on E-Land crowds
On 8 occasions E-Land went directly up against a live baseball match and the average attendance was slightly less than 1500. By contrast when they played before or after a baseball match the average attendance was nearly 3,000 (admittedly this includes the opening match but even excluding that the average is about 2,500). Surprisingly when there was no baseball game scheduled the average remained around 1,500 while on the nights when the baseball was postponed (presumably due to weather) the average attendance was over 1,800. Interestingly the one game scheduled for a Monday night (v Anyang on Aug 3rd) when traditionally there is no baseball drew the third biggest attendance of the season.

This, to me at least, suggests that there are a significant number of baseball fans that will drift over to watch the football if the timing allows (either before or after the game) but when the scheduling clashes the baseball will win. I'm not sure how much leeway E-Land have with the kick-off times and how much is dictated by the League or TV but it's certainly something they should look closely at.

3. There's already a football team in Seoul

Yes, it might be a loathesome one with a questionable history but it can't be denied that FC Seoul has established itself as a pretty big fish in the K-League pond and it's had a dozen years to get things right and build its fanbase. Going up against that is going to be a big ask for any new side. When E-Land were formed one of the selling points was the opportunity to establish a rivalry with the team across the river, setting up the potential for a Seoul derby match and founding a team in the city that didn't have any of the questionable baggage around its formation. I'm not sure it's really worked out that way for a number of reasons.

In reality, it seems that most people have forgotten any animosity towards FC Seoul caused by its founding. Maybe many are unaware or maybe they just don't care but either way we can probably assume that most people in Seoul who have a strong desire to watch a live football match and support a team have already chosen sides - whether it's FC Seoul or one of the other nearby sides such as Seongnam or even Suwon. On a K-League matchday there are certainly plenty of Samsung-clad supporters filling the buses from Gangnam to Suwon and the addition of new subway lines also means that Seongnam isn't more than about 30 minutes away from the heart of Gangnam.

Do we need some half-and-half scarves printed for FC Seoul and E-Land fans? Let's hope not.
So if the idea was that there was an untapped supporter-base just waiting for a team to support then I think that can be pretty much dismissed. In fact, it looks as if what has actually happened is that a percentage of fans of existing clubs have actually adopted E-Land as their 'second' team. I've certainly seen enough FC Seoul fans in the Jamsil stands at games to know that there are a few who claim to be supporters of both clubs.

As a Scottish football fan I struggle to get my head around this idea, especially when I see FC Seoul shirts wandering around Jamsil without attracting any concern. I can't imagine someone wandering into Celtic Park wearing a Rangers top, or a Hearts fan sporting his colours to watch Hibs take on St Mirren. The idea of a football rivalry seems completely alien to the fans and they seem to identify more with the city of Seoul than with the team. I think this was exemplified to me when E-Land beat Suwon 5-1 and the fans were somehow trumpeting this as 'revenge' for Bluewings inflicting the same scoreline on FC Seoul. I just shook my head.

Surely E-Land need to establish their own unique identity and supporter base distinct from FC Seoul rather than becoming the city's 'wee team'? It will be interesting to see what happens when the two sides inevitably meet each other either in the FA Cup or following E-Land's promotion. Can you still support two sides in the same league? The answer, that every football fan knows, is a resounding 'no'.

So What Can Be Done?

It seems to be clear that a 'build it and they will come' approach is not going to work here. There just aren't enough fans willing to go to games every week to build a new club to match the ambitions of E-Land and those that are already have attached themselves to teams. So if E-Land is to be a success it looks to me as if the marketing strategy has to be focused on persuading people who haven't been football fans up until now to jump on the bandwagon and become E-Land supporters. Appealing to that broader audience is the only way to carve out a niche for the team. It certainly won't be an easy task but there is certainly huge potential if it can be achieved. Baseball fans who are already going to Jamsil are an obvious target but there's also a huge untapped mass in the immediate vicinity of the stadium that need to be engaged with. If just 1% of the people who shamble through the COEX Mall on a Saturday afternoon could be persuaded to go to the football instead then they'd need to build some more stands in the Olympic Stadium to cope with demand.

The key thing though is that these people are not football fans. So marketing to them as if they are isn't going to work. Trying to sell them just another K-League football club isn't going to work now if it hasn't worked for any of the other clubs in the past. If E-Land is to truly succeed then it's going to have to break the mould. That was certainly the vision that E-Land seemed to have when they established the club but efforts so far I would say have been a mixed bag. Some elements have been excellent while others, I think, have been a disappointment. In the next enthralling episode of this epic I will try to highlight some of the good, the bad and the ugly of what I have seen so far.

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