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The Lost Opportunity of the U20 World Cup

An intriguing U20 World Cup reaches its crescendo in Suwon today with England and Venezuela's youth teams vying for their first ever title. Both on and off the field, the tournament has largely been a success, but with one lingering question: where was the K League?
(Photo by Alex Morton - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

The Venues

One of the biggest perks of Korea hosting the U20 World Cup was the excuse to finally visit some of the stadiums that have been on my list for far too long. I've long fancied an excuse to head over to Incheon or down to Daejeon, but never made the time until the USA Baby Nats came to town, and the venues did not disappoint. This was clearly something the KFA had in mind when they decided to avoid using Seoul World Cup Stadium in order to highlight other grounds throughout the country where the full National team rarely visits. It was a great thing for me personally, and worked well for this tournament, but wasn't overly convenient for the usual tenants. While it was admirable to shine a light on the lesser used World Cup venues, several K League clubs – including league-leaders Jeonbuk – agreed to relocate to much less... quality stadiums with fewer (occasionally no) amenities.  Teams like Incheon United were forced to play five straight away games, where they went winless and watched themselves slide even further down the table. Similarly, Daejeon Citizen played away from home for nearly a month and also failed to pick up a result in a league where home field advantage means so much. Even the AFC Champions League was affected by the tournament with Jeju United moving their midweek clash vs J League's Urawa Reds to 3:00pm due to the Jeju Complex Stadium not having adequate lights for an evening match.

In the end this forced relocation could be looked at like an injury to a player or another similar dilemma strong teams are able to overcome. In spite of playing all of their home games in the rundown Jeonju Civil Stadium, Jeonbuk still managed to find their way to the top of the table as usual. So it was certainly possible to accommodate the U20 tournament and still perform in the league. The real frustration with the forced relocations comes with the lack of any signs of the regular tenants as thousands of potential fans walked through the gates. It's especially bothersome when considering these potential fans who filled the behemoth stadiums were already watching K League players.

Korea's Exit

The Korean U20 team falling in their first knockout round match was a huge blow for the team and the tournament as a whole. The ins and outs of why they lost is better left to the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors. As for the impact, that could be felt far beyond those covering the national team. The lack of any sellout crowds moving forward was the biggest impact, and we'll get to that, but one of the biggest disappointments was Korea bowing out before the domestic-based players had their time to shine.

Unlike the full national team where the majority of the roster comes from overseas, the U20 squad was largely comprised of university students and K League players. Sure the Barcelona boys Lee Seung-woo and Paik Seung-ho grabbed most of the headlines, but a third of the players on the roster are a part of Korea's top flight and there was almost zero focus on this.

1GKSong Bum-keunKorea University
2DFYoon Jong-gyuFC Seoul
3DFWoo Chan-yangPohang Steelers
4DFJeong Tae-wookAjou University
5DFLee Sang-minSoongsil University
6MFLee Seung-moPohang Steelers
7MFLee Jin-hyunSungkyunkwan University
8MFHan Chan-heeJeonnam Dragons
9FWCho Young-wookKorea University
10MFLee Seung-wooFC Barcelona Juvenil A
11FWHa Seung-unYonsei University
12GKAhn Joon-sooCerezo Osaka
13DFLee You-hyeonJeonnam Dragons
14MFPaik Seung-hoFC Barcelona B
15DFKim Min-hoYonsei University
16MFLee Sang-heonUlsan Hyundai
17MFKang Ji-hunYongin University
18MFLim Min-hyeokFC Seoul
19DFKim Seung-wooYonsei University
20DFLee Jung-moonYonsei University
21GKLee JunYonsei University

Though a good number of the K League players aren't getting a ton of minutes in Classic, a few of them, like FC Seoul's Lim Min-hyeok and Jeonnam's Han Chan-hee, have a handful of starts for their clubs and have made an impact this season. The KFA would have been wise to highlight these budding stars and attempt to get people out on the weekends to watch them. If nothing else, it would have been a nice humble brag about developing talent domestically.

But back to those sellout crowds. With reported attendances of 37,500 vs Guinea, 27,058 vs Argentina, 35,279 vs England, and 21,361vs Portugal in Jeonju, Suwon, and little ol Cheonan respectively, that's over 120,000 people coming out to watch football. Sometimes on weeknights in stadiums that aren't exactly the easiest to get to. Korea dropping out earlier than expected meant an end to these kind of numbers, but the question remains: what did the KFA and K League do with the four opportunities they had to capitalize on this passion?

My Life For Some Marketing

Of the over 120,000 who attended a Korea U20 match, not one saw a single ad nor promotion for the domestic league. It's genuinely baffling to believe K League couldn't have set up a table outside the grounds to advertise themselves. With the long break K League Classic took to accommodate the U20 World Cup, surely the home sides could have sent some Korean stars to the stadium in the team's kit? Lee Dong-gook signing autographs in Jeonju. Yeom Ki-hun taking selfies in Suwon. It's a seemingly small thing that would've gone a long way to put K League on the radar of the hordes of casual fans coming through the turnstiles. An interactive "competition" setup where kids can kick a ball and win some free tickets to a K League game would have been great. At the very least some pocket schedules for the home team at the concession stands would have been something.

But there was nothing.

No league table set up, no merch, no mentions, nothing. I'll admit I'm far from an expert on FIFA advertising regulations and perhaps it was either too expensive or simply not possible for K League to have a presence at the matches themselves. Even if that is the case, the league and its teams still dropped the ball.

37,500 came to Jeonju on May 20th to watch the hosts face off against Guinea and left quite delighted after Korea dispatched their African opponents 3-0. Jeonbuk did nothing to capitalize on this elation. In fact, they seemingly suffered from it. The league leaders hosted last place Incheon the next day on May 21st and saw a meager 6,579 come through the gate less than 24 hours after their usual home field was sold out. Forget K League being barred from advertising at the games (if that was indeed the case), Jeonbuk could have acted on their own and offered half off admission for anyone with a U20 ticket. Or the ever popular 2+1 for U20 ticket stubs. Advertise the deal on social media and with banners around town appealing to the visiting football fans. Surely a few thousand of the 37,500 that took in the match the night before would have been tempted by such a deal. It's another seemingly small thing that would have gone a long way to appeal to casual fans and get them interested in K League.

Something similar could have and should have been done by Daejeon Citizen, Incheon United, Jeju United, Suwon Bluewings, Suwon FC, and even little ol National League side Cheonan City FC. All of these teams were inconvenienced by the tournament, but sacrificed their home field and practice facilities for the greater good of growing the game in Korea. However, due to each team's and their respective league's marketing ineptitude, the only reward they'll get is a pat on the back and maybe a thank you from the KFA. This simply isn't good enough for a sport looking to increase its footprint domestically after hosting a globally recognized tournament. Opportunities like this don't come around very often, I dare to hope the K League does better next time.

What do you think about K League's lack of marketing at the U20 World Cup? What you like to have seen them do? Or do you think it wasn't their place to advertise? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below or join the conversation on Twitter!


  1. Interesting article. I thought about this during the tournament too and maybe the longer I'm here, the more cynical I become but now I tend to think they probably didn't miss out on a lot. While 2002 did boost attendances all the way through until the next World Cup and had the long term benefit of all the new stadiums, that "CU@KLeague" tifo at the 3rd place play-off game quickly turned out to be hollow. And Korea did well in 2002.

    This time, of the 120,000 who attended Korea's games, about 110,000 probably only came to see Lee Seung-woo – as evidenced by the empty seats at the sold-out England game. That he was so far and away superior to anyone else on the team (with the exception of Baik Seung-ho) will unfortunately have done more harm to the domestic league’s reputation in the eyes of non K-League fans.

    The ones who actually went to the games rather than watching on TV are likely the ones who know all about K-League already, even if they never go. The ticket stub thing should have happened – I remember Bucheon did that when they had a league game right after the stadium hosted a rare (first ever?) national team game there a couple of years ago and it was successful but again, these are the people who know full well there’s K-League going on in their cities. Not sure awareness is the issue.

    It frustrates me that Seoul and Suwon tarp off their top tiers this days and just accept they don’t need them in the way they used to. It may be a budget thing but I don’t think it is completely down to ineptitude - the teams know how to get people there once a season; If Seoul decide they want 50,000 for the next Supermatch, they’ll get it but they won’t come back until the same time next season and going to the football once more pops up on the “family things to do” rota.

    That’s because it just isn’t a fun night out in the same way the KBO is. You need to arrive on time, not 30 minutes late, and you can’t duck out every few minutes for pizza, chicken and beer, before chatting with your mates a while but still have two hours of the game left to watch. With baseball you can go and support a different team every night and it really doesn’t matter what’s going on in the game. With football, to keep coming back, you need to have some kind of investment in the result but the relentlessly negative fare on offer all too often in K-League at the moment sadly isn’t worth that kind of investment for many people, even for the ones who like football. Until the product is marketable, the marketing won’t work.

    1. Certainly some fair points here. I definitely agree about the comparisons to KBO and why that's the more popular sport for the casual fan. Far more breaks and time to... well... not pay attention or need to have knowledge of what's happening.

      I agree a bit less about the exposure though. Sure a good majority folks likely know about K League, but they may not have taken the time to go to a match. Discounted tickets is a great way to get them to try it. But then, I wholeheartedly agree the product on the field needs to improve to bring people back and want to watch again.

      That said, I'll say the same thing here I've said a few times on Twitter, what's the harm in trying? There's quite literally no downside to K League attempting to gain new fans by taking advantage of the U20 World Cup and its crowds. Even if it is only for one or two games, so what? That's still one or two more busy games than usual for the year and helps spread the brand.


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