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Largest South Korean Cities Without a K League Club

With the restructuring of the South Korean football league system for the 2020 season, the number of cities that have K League clubs has increased. Most of the country's large population centres have at least one team and some places have multiple clubs playing within their city limits. However, there are various locations around the country that have hundreds of thousands of people, but no professional men's football team. This article takes a look at the five most populated cities in the country, and the largest cities in each province, that do not have a club in any of the top four divisions of South Korean men's football.

Expansion of the K League

The South Korean men's football pyramid has gone through multiple changes over the years. Originally founded with five teams in 1983, the top division grew to an all-time high of 16 teams in 2011. This would go on to be gradually reduced once relegation was first introduced in 2012, in time for the creation of the K League 2 (then known as the K League Challenge) in 2013. K League 1 now has 12 teams while K League 2 has had 10 teams since the 2017 season, after having between eight to 11 teams in the previous seasons.

The previous second division of Korean football was the Korea National League (formerly the Korean National Semi-Professional Football League), which became the third tier once the K League 2 debuted in 2013. In fact, the National League was itself known as the K2 League between 2003-2005. Since its reorganisation in 2003 a total of 16 clubs had played in the National League at various points until it folded in 2019. The eight clubs that remained in the National League at the time of its demise were combined with teams in the K3 Advanced and K3 Basic to create the new K3 League  (16 clubs) and K4 League (13 clubs).

These changes show that while the number of football clubs in South Korea has always been fluid, there has been a steady increase over the last few decades. New teams have been continuously added and large numbers of existing clubs have taken part in relocations. One of the most notable examples is Jeju United, which was originally founded as Seoul-based side Yukong Elephants. Later it moved outside of the capital in the 1990's to become Bucheon SK, before finally moving to the island of Jeju and taking on their current form at the end of 2006. As it is clear that there is always a good chance that there will be more expansions and relocations in Korean football, this article will highlight some of the cities that are the most likely candidates to have professional football arrive on their doorstep (based on each city's latest population estimates).

Top Five Largest in the Country

1. Yongin, Gyeonggi-do.

Population: 1 million (2020)
Professional Sports Team: Yongin Samsung Blueminx (Women's Korean Basketball League)
Closest K League Clubs: Seongnam FC (K1); Suwon Samsung Bluewings (K1); Suwon FC (K2); Hwaseong FC (K3); Pyeongtaek Citizen FC (K3); Icheon Citizen (K4)
Former Football Club: Yongin City FC (National League 2010-16)

Situated south of Seoul, the most populated city without a K League club is also the city with the fastest population growth in the country. It is very well connected with Seoul and the rest of Gyeonggi-do by road and public transport, with multiple metro lines running through the city. Many Koreans and foreign residents and tourists are well aware of Yongin's accessibility, as it contains Everland and Caribbean Bay (South Korea's most popular amusement and water parks) and the Korean Folk Village (the largest 'living museum' in the country). Yongin has quite a young population as many families move their for job opportunities and spacious living, and multiple universities are based there.

Their former club Yongin City FC did not experience great success, but the infrastructure that they left behind in terms of the small stadium and youth football centre remains. Yongin is situated near two of the most successful clubs in the country in regards to Seongnam FC and Suwon Samsung Bluewings, meaning that their would be competition to create a fan base. However, the crowded football market place could in fact create an opportunity, as a successful Yongin side could cause residents to support their local team, rather than a club from a neighbouring city.

2. Namyangju, Gyeonggi-do

Population: 662,000 (2016)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: FC Seoul (K1); Seoul E-Land (K2); Pocheon Citizen (K4); Yangpyeong FC (K4); Seoul Nowon United (K4); Seoul Jungang (K4)
Former Football Club: Namyangju United FC (K3 Challengers League 2007-13)

To the east of Seoul lies Namyangju, a large city that has remained a bit more isolated from the capital than some of its Gyeonggi-do neighbours until the last decade. Greater transport links are being built and they will no doubt change the area, but Namyangju still retains a lot of its rural background despite its large population. Most famous for its pears and Gorosei medicinal water, the city's biggest tourist attraction is the Namyangju Organic Museum. This may not draw in many outside investors or potential away fans, but the local community feeling that still thrives there could provide the basis for a well-supported club. While it is true that Namyangju United FC failed to make an impression, that could be partly because they existed among the lower levels of South Korean football. If a club with greater investment was to be founded in the area at a higher level, then it could really capture the imagination of a large population that would otherwise have to turn to Seoul to fill  their professional footballing needs.

3. Jeju City, Jeju-do

Population: 486,000 (2019)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Club: Jeju United (K2)
Former Football Club: No

One of the biggest tourist destinations in the country and part of the world's busiest air traffic route, the southern island of Jeju certainly makes for a memorable away day. Casual observers may believe that the inclusion of Jeju City on this list is a mistake due to the existence of K League 2 club Jeju United, however, they are based in the city of Seogwipo on the southern half of the island. Jeju may not have the population to support fan bases for two big teams, and the costs of travel might rule out having a team in K3 or K4. This does not mean that Jeju City should be overlooked, though, as the footballing landscape on the island could change in the near future. Jeju United have been based in Seogwipo since the end of 2006, but their current agreement to play on the island finishes after the 2021 season.

There is a very good chance that they will extend that deal, but their have been some rumours of a potential move due to the recent relegation and poor attendance figures. One potential location is actually Yongin, because of its size and the fact that Jeju United owner's SK have many business interests based in Yongin. If this were to happen then a new club could easily move into the vacated World Cup Stadium in Seogwipo. However, due to the poor attendance figures and recent trends of K League clubs downsizing to improve matchday atmosphere, it could prove to be a smart decision to build a smaller stadium in the larger Jeju City, whose population is three times the size of Seogwipo. Jeju United did use the 20,000 seater Jeju Stadium in Jeju City between 2007 and 2010, but as it has a running-track a new club will probably aim to build a new stadium as soon as possible.

4. Uijeongbu, Gyeonggi-do

Population: 438,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: Uijeongbu KB Insurance Stars (Men's Volleyball: V-League)
Closest K League Clubs: FC Seoul (K1); Seoul E-Land (K2); Yangju Citizen (K3); Pocheon Citizen (K4); Goyang Citizen (K4); Seoul Nowon United (K4); Seoul Jungang (K4)
Former Football Club: FC Uijeongbu (K3 Challengers League/Basic 2014-18); Uijeongbu Hummel FC (National League 2003-06)

The alleged place of origin of the fusion dish Budae-jjigae, Uijeongbu hold a strategic position just north of  Seoul and is home to many military bases. A large amount of the population also consists of workers that commute to Seoul everyday, as the city is fairly well connected to the capital by roads and public transport. The 25th largest city in the country, it has successfully hosted a professional volleyball team for three years. The same success cannot be said for its former football teams FC Uijeongbu and Uijeongbu Hummel FC, who spent their existences near the bottom of the South Korean football pyramid until they were dissolved. If a higher level club were to be based in the city then the facilities already exist, as the stadium at Uijeongbu Sports Complex can hold around 30,000 fans. This may be too large for a lot of K League clubs, but to have a stadium already in place does eliminate one of the hurdles to establishing a football team in the city.

5. Gumi, Gyeongsangbuk-do

Population: 427,000 (2019)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Daegu FC (K1); Sangju Sangmu (K1)
Former Football Club: No

The second largest city in Gyeongsangbuk-do after Pohang, Gumi is positioned just north of Daegu and is a major hub of industry and manufacturing. Gumi was the former home of the men's volleyball team KB Insurance Stars before they moved to Uijeongbu, and is currently without a professional sports team after women's football club Gumi Sportstoto moved to Sejong in December 2019. Similarly to Uijeongbu, Gumi does already have a stadium that can be readily used by a new K League club. The Gumi Civic stadium has a capacity of 35,000, though its running track will mean it would likely be a temporary home until a soccer-specific stadium can be built. Gumi may not be as accessible as some other cities in the top five, but for that reason it might also have a captive market made up of local football fans that find it difficult to support other clubs such as Daegu, Pohang Steelers, and Sangju Sangmu.

[LISTEN: KLU Pod | Building A K League Club]

Largest Per Province

Wonju, Gangwon-do

Population: 338,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: Wonju DB Promy (Men's Korean Basketball League)
Closest K League Clubs: Gangwon (K1); Chuncheon FC (K3); Chungju Citizen (K4); Yangpyeong FC (K4); Yeoju Citizen (K4)
Former Football Clubs: Hyundai Horang-i (K-League 1987-89); Gangwon FC (K-League Classic 2013-16)

The largest city in Gangwon-do, Wonju lies roughly an hour away from Seoul and is the city on this list with the largest sporting pedigree. Not only does it host a three-time league championship winning men's basketball team, there have also been two K League clubs that have temporarily called Wonju home. Ulsan Hyundai played there in the late-1980's before their move to the southeast coast, and Gangwon FC used it as their third home stadium before deciding to focus on their bases in Chuncheon and Gangneung. Both clubs played at the 20,000 capacity Wonju Stadium, which would likely be the home of an incoming new team.

There is a possibility that Gangwon FC could return to Wonju in the not so distant future. With the football pyramid opening up and promotion/relegation between K2 and K3 tentatively set to be introduced from 2023, there is a possibility that K3 clubs Chuncheon FC and Gangneung City FC could eat away at Gangwon FC's support base, should the two clubs climb the K League divisions. If Gangwon FC's unique two home stadium system begins to look less logical and economical, then Wonju would be the best place to move to without having to change any of the club's imagery and identity.

Yangsan, Gyeongsangnam-do

Population: 318,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Busan IPark (K1); Ulsan Hyundai (K1); Gyeongnam FC (K2); Gimhae FC (K3); Busan FC (K3); Changwon City FC (K3); Ulsan Citizen (K4)
Former Football Club: No

Located in a crowded football marketplace in the southeast of the country, Yangsan is a modestly-sized commuter city that is well connected to the Busan metro system. As with clubs in Gyeonggi-do near the capital, the abundance of nearby football clubs could actually create an opportunity through uniting divided supporters located in the city. With neighbouring clubs in all of the top four divisions a local rivalry is guaranteed regardless of the division, which is something that could generate interest among potential football fans. Yangsan already has a 22,000 capacity stadium, though as with many stadiums mentioned in this article it has a running-track. Yangsan could prove to be a suitable location for a K3 or K4 club, but could struggle to make an impact higher up the pyramid.

Iksan, Jeollabuk-do

Population: 301,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors (K1); Daejeon Hana Citizen (K2); Jeonju Citizen (K3); Daejeon Korail (K3)
Former Football Club: Hallelujah FC (Amateur 1991-98)

The so called "City of Jewellery", host of many festivals, and major railway junction, Iksan is in the north of Jeollabuk-do, on the border with Chungcheongnam-do. The former capital of the Baekje kingdom, Iksan has remained an important city despite its size. The 25,000 multi-use Iksan Public Stadium formerly hosted the now defunct Hallelujah FC after it quit professional football and became solely focused on missionary work. Iksan is probably the best candidate for a Jeollabuk-do club to rival Jeonju-based Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors. While they may never be equal competitors on the pitch, an Iksan-based club could provide an alternative for local supporters that dislike Jeonbuk and also do not wish to follow Jeonju Citizen.

Yeosu, Jeollanam-do

Population: 288,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Gwangju FC (K1); Jeonnam Dragons (K2); Mokpo City (K3)
Former Football Club: Yeosu INGNEX FC (National League 2007)

A popular tourist destination due to its pleasant climate and landscape, Yeosu is positioned on the southern coast of Korea. Its previous attempt at hosting a football team did not go well, as Yeosu INGNEX FC never actually played a game in the city. A disagreement with the Yeosu city government left them homeless in 2007, and they were sold and moved to Gangwon-do to become Hongcheon Idu FC, before dissolving in 2009. A second attempt of having a professional club could be more successful, but actually Yeosu could end up gaining one without any club moving or being created. There have been ongoing discussions for years about merging Yeosu and the neighbouring cities of Suncheon and Gwangyang together to form a new city.

Gwangyang are the home of Jeonnam Dragons, meaning that Yeosu and Suncheon would be automatically gaining themselves a team in the K League 2. As this development would remove both Yeosu and Suncheon from future incarnations of this list, the next largest city in Jeollanam-do without a K League club is the much smaller city of Naju. Naju has a population of around 105,000, though this is growing annually due to its status as an innovative and eco-friendly city, and its proximity to Gwangju. Naju could be an interesting candidate for a team in several years, especially as it could provide an alternative to Gwangju FC.

Sejong, Sejong Special Autonomous City

Population: 281,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: Sejong Sportstoto WFC (Women's Football: WK League)
Closest K League Clubs: Daejeon Hana Citizen (K2); Chungnam Asan (K2); Daejeon Korail (K3); Cheonan City (K3); Chungju Citizen (K4)
Former Football Club: No

The newest city in this article, Sejong was founded in 2007 to serve as the new administrative capital of South Korea. Multiple government departments and agencies have since moved to the planned city, and its population is expected to grow to 500,000 residents by 2030. With a growing population, high status in the country, and need to create an identifiable culture among people that have moved from across the country, professional sports will likely find their way to Sejong. The city also has ready-made marketing angle, as it is named after the most respected King in Korean history and creator of the Korean alphabet. The first professional sports team in Sejong will debut in 2020, as WK League club Sejong Sportstoto WFC has recently moved from Gumi. It will be interesting how successful this team is and whether their performance impacts on how fast they are joined by other sports teams.

Seosan, Chungcheongnam-do

Population: 174,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Daejeon Hana Citizen (K2); Chungnam Asan (K2); Daejeon Korail (K3); Cheonan City (K3); Hwaseong FC (K3); Pyeongtaek Citizen FC (K3)
Former Football Club: Seosan Citizen (National League 2002-07)

Found in the west of the country, Seosan has a relatively small population and low numbers of tourists. However, it is easily accessible as it is a transport hub for people and goods moving up and down the west coast between major cities. It is most famous as being the birthplace of the singer Rain, and for the local cultivation of garlic and oysters. The city does have a suitably sized 10,000 seater multi-use stadium, which is about as large as a city like Seosan should have. As with some other cities in this article, while Seosan may not be the best candidate for a K League club, the city's lack of outside attention could make it ideal for a community-focused K3 or K4 club.

Jecheon, Chungcheongbuk-do

Population: 136,000 (2017)
Professional Sports Team: No
Closest K League Clubs: Sangju Sangmu (K1); Cheongju FC (K3); Chungju Citizen (K4); Yangpyeong FC (K4); Yeoju Citizen (K4)
Former Football Club: No

Similarly to Seosan, Jecheon is a city with a small population but a large amount of passing traffic as it is at the junction of multiple transport routes. Jecheon is located at the centre of the country, but unlike Seosan a lot of people visit the city and do not just pass through. This is because it is a well-known "healing city", as it is a big centre of traditional Korean medicine and therapies. Jecheon has a 30,000 capacity multi-use stadium at its disposal, which could temporarily house a team until a smaller stadium is constructed. A lack of big clubs immediately nearby could mean that there is a market for football amongst neighbouring communities. However, the low population density and rural nature of these communities could make it difficult to appeal to people outside of the city.


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