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Opinion: FC Anyang's Chance to Strike Gold

With FC Anyang seemingly the next K League club to invest in a football-specific stadium, guest columnist Lex Nande looks at the opportunity ahead for the Violets and voices his opinion on how it should be approached.

Slowly, the stereotypes erected by the social proof of local football being sub par on every level to overseas counterparts is seeing favorable opposition. Over the last decade, the newly laid concrete that surrounds professional football in Korea has seen a shift from ‘impressive on paper’ to giving fans the atmosphere they desire. While pats on the back in the name of success have been flying into Incheon, Daegu and Gwangju, the question needs to be asked: Are these stadiums truly successful, or merely viewed as such when being compared to the disastrous bowls that once housed local teams in those cities?

Since the Olympics were granted to Seoul for the 1988 Summer Olympics, stadiums were a symbol of progression, economic power and political proof to neighboring communities, countries and to the world that South Korea truly created a miracle. South Korea won the Olympic hosting rights against the only other country to bid, Japan. When the 2002 World Cup was looking to come to Asia, it was once again a battle between two countries, with inseparable history, that would compete again for hosting rights. As FIFA avoided picking a political side and elected to break its own rules of not allowing a co-hosted tournament, it awarded Seoul and Tokyo the opening game and finals respectively. With that decision, the amount of hosted games went from 64 (as a single host would get) to 32 games for each country. Despite the games, expected travel, and revenue being cut in half, neither country backed off their original plan to use ten stadiums. After all, the K League was formed to bring the World Cup to South Korea, not the other way around, and therefore stadiums were not built with local leagues in mind. 

The First Football Specific Stadium

Ironically, the first football specific stadium (for a professional team) was built before the World Cup bid and was a massive reason that South Korea was even considered for the hosting rights. The Steel Yard popped up in the middle of the economic boom, and to this day hosts the Pohang Steelers. The team’s owner, Posco, wanted to do for their factory workers what the baseball league was doing for so many other Koreans around the peninsula. Yet the formula of an enclosed stadium, adoring the colors of the home team standing in the middle of a city wasn’t replicated for another twenty years.

Pohang Steelers' Steel Yard

The Steel Yard didn’t win over the hearts of locals because of its size or eye appeal. The stadium squeezed into a sectioned plot, with fifteen thousand seats encroaching the field of play. The stadium stood tall, with stairs so steep that one climb to the top would be a replacement for leg day at the gym. The acoustics at the field are still relatively unmatched. The fans were made a part of the experience as the Steel Yard has never been an easy place for opponents, often so loud that players have a hard time communicating. Despite this, cities around Korea have been aiming for success by association as the idea is that a large stadium mimicking an Olympic venue will serve the people best. 

The city of Anyang, located south of capital city Seoul, announced in February that they are going to be the next to attempt and try to ‘succeed’ with a football specific pitch for their city owned team, FC Anyang. As their mayor Choi Dae-ho has publicly shown his love for football, by forming the team during his first stint as mayor in 2013, he now is aiming for a new stadium. His recent gift of a KTX station to Anyang has boosted his popularity with citizens, and just maybe, gathered enough trust to start on his next project. For the mayor who has only missed one home game due to a COVID-related incident, only time will tell if the city makes good on their promise to the city or if the stadium becomes another painted waste land. 

Why “Copy n Paste” Will Fail

Anyang’s plan for a new stadium sits on the wrong side of the COVID pandemic; economical troubles and instabilities are increasingly worrisome. This makes ill fated projects even more problematic for local communities when funds could be spent on more necessary projects that enhance a community. 

Mayor Choi Dae-ho has given praise to newly opened football-specific stadiums in Incheon and Daegu. However, Anyang’s first problem lies with the population density being four times greater than those two cities. A failed project means wasting valuable land within a smaller city which is already surrounded by mountains, making developable land even more scarce. As the city has budgeted nearly $43 million USD (500억) for the stadium, Daegu FC’s stadium, Daegu Bank Park, falls within that budget. Yet Anyang needs to get more out of a stadium than what a reproduction of Daegu’s stadium will offer.

Daegu FC's DGB Daegu Bank Park

Yes, the stadium walls in Daegu are lined with restaurants and cafes to essentially keep the stadium in use year around. However, the allocated plot in Anyang is already surrounded by family dining and a failure to look at other options is essentially a failure to spend the people’s money wisely.  

The saying goes that the two certainties of life are death and taxes. What Anyang citizens should be saying is that if they are getting taxed, and before they die, their stadium should at least provide a decent meal and an outlet to enjoy life. Not just K League action, but life. 

Redefining The Term “Jonghap

For decades the term “multi-purpose” (Jonghap) adorned stadium walls, being projected as the savior of all stadiums. After all, Korea's most successful stadium, Seoul Olympic Stadium in Jamsil, brought worldwide fame to the country in 1988. Since then the walls have hosted a range of activities and events, including but not limited to domestic and international football, track meets, concerts and the first drive-thru COVID-19 testing center. Even with all of these events being hosted, the facility sits empty for the better part of the year. One time events like the Olympics, Asian Games, and international track meets only temporarily increase the amount of days the stadium is in use. However, on average, these Korean stadiums, at most, open only 5% of the calendar year. The number is alarming for cities like Yongin, Iksan, Chungju and others who operate massive stadiums in the name of unrealistic dreams. 

Apart from Seoul World Cup Stadium, the newly built stadiums in Incheon and Daegu are the first to be built in populated areas with additional uses to sports. Compared to Yongin’s stadium, which is incomplete due to financial reasons, Incheon and Daegu were successful on and off the field, but Mayor Choi Dae-ho still has to think about the 600,000 citizens of Anyang that did not make it to a football game yet. 

To help boost the club as well as build for all citizens, take into consideration the following. Eyes on the stadium creates interest, interest leads to ticket sales, tickets sales leads to a higher team budget and that budget builds a better team that will increase interest. The neighboring city of Seongnam allows Tancheon Stadium to sit empty 345 days a year, opting to post team flyers at city bus stops. Instead, Anyang should focus on bringing people to the stadium 365 days of the year. 

The city should start with its youth for a few reasons; after all, children are normally accompanied by adults, leading to more people around the stadium. First, a standard library will not mix well with the noise and energy of a football stadium, but what about a media center? Take a look at the media center in Iksan, which offers tours, educational events, as well as room and studio rentals. Regardless of your thoughts on kids in class wanting to be a YouTube star as opposed to getting a "traditional" job, building a media center into the stadium will not only give the youth a chance to grow, but without a doubt will lead to more cameras pointing at FC Anyang. More cameras equals more marketing. 

For those with families, breaking away from the typical park will not only bring excitement to the stadium, it will also give people something new to do. Take a look at the low-cost, and highly unique ‘Pump Track’ being built in Daejeon. These can be designed in any given area, promote physical activity and will certainly bond a family or set of friends.

All across the country, jobs have been a huge issue with those graduating unable to find employment. ‘Shared Kitchens’ are the new food truck, and Anyang could set the trend in Korea. Post-COVID, people have become dependent on delivery foods. Not a single restaurant that encloses the walls of DGB Park serves ‘stadium friendly’ food, unless you think people are going to bring their pork belly, side dishes and coals into the game. ‘Shared Kitchens’ are a cheap way for entrepreneurs to start a business. They don’t have a dining area meaning food is wrapped and taken away. The stadium saves space by not having to add food stalls, it keeps the Anyang experience as the food is innovative and likely to be changing from season to season, and the business sustains itself by serving the local community 365 days of the year. 

For the unemployed, a wired shared-working space will allow people to prepare themselves, or start-ups, in a friendly working environment. If all goes according to plan, a positive atmosphere around the stadium will hopefully carry over into those who are working to start their careers in various business fields. 

Last, but certainly not least, are the leisure folks who might head out of town for their usual entertainment. Remember that the ‘football’ stadium can become successful by offering more than just football, but an experience. Pregame entertainment is absolutely crucial, and seems to only be addressed by one club in the entire KFA umbrella. In 2015, Jeju’s World Cup stadium had an amazing offer for fans as temporary stalls lined the eastern gates; free food while it lasted. Free is obviously not a great long term business plan, but they did create a pregame atmosphere. 

In 2019 FC Seoul had brought food trucks to the stadium and set up a dining area, in addition to pregame performances by the team cheerleaders and areas for kids to test out their skills. This is what ALL teams should be focused on, when the reality of the sport is that baseball is the largest competitor for a reason. Without three to four hours of entertainment, the opportunity for Anyang to pull in away fans (which equal money) and new home team fans from surrounding clubless-cities (Gwacheon, Uiwang and Gwangmyeong for example) will be lost. 

Korea can no longer be happy with copying what was successful elsewhere and instead needs to be proactive and innovative. FC Anyang have proven themselves to be capable of providing what seems to be the league’s lone ‘vaccinated only’ seating option in their stadium. While the team will continue to use their modified multiple-use stadium until 2023, only time will tell if Anyang can strike gold or settles, like so many, for ‘good enough’. 

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