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A Groundhopper's 2024 Wish List

Matthew Binns, Paul Neat, and I participated in the K League United Christmas Special the week before Christmas. Several website writers and fans contributed to the marathon podcast by explaining what changes they'd love to see for 2024. I've expanded on some of those points with ways to improve the match-day experience.

With the transfer window officially open, K League fans woke up (nursing a headache, no doubt) hoping for good news on a new contract or an exciting prospect signed here or abroad. Because I don't have a team, I can watch the Twitter updates with curiosity. My list, therefore, is not related to any team or even ways to improve the league in general.

As someone who likes visiting as many stadiums as possible, these are just some of the changes I'd like to see from 2024. In other words, the Groundhopper's wishlist. Some changes are completely unrealistic; for example, no more stadiums with a running track, a subway station built within walking distance of every stadium, etc. These are slightly more realistic although I did leave a whacky suggestion at the end.

Better merchandise and bigger club stores

As someone who visits several grounds throughout the long summer months, one of the great disappointments about watching K League football is the paucity of merchandise options at club stores (more on those in a minute). Unless you're a diehard fan, spending over 90,000 on a jersey you won't wear often is a waste of money.

Most of the best merchandise is sold out immediately, but in the hot and humid summer months, there's an endless supply of scarves. The stock is generally overpriced, uninteresting, and in short supply. T-shirts bearing the club's crest or colors are the ideal purchase for a neutral fan  (and, perhaps, a supporter who can't afford a jersey) hopping from ground to ground. And they don't need to cost more than ₩20,000.

As for the club stores, most are far too small and the shelves are full of the same stock. At the Pohang Steel Yard, for example, you need a number to get in. Elsewhere, long queues start forming hours before kick-off. If you bother to stick around, you'll be confronted with an endless supply of jerseys and, eh, scarves. I'd love to know what you think about your own club, and o you think there's sufficient choice around the country?

Not a lot of choice in Ulsan Munsu Football Stadium.

More variety in food and drink

Fried chicken, flavored chicken, and chicken on a stick? You got it! The food truck culture is a fun part of watching football in Korea and generally the food is decent and reasonably priced. However, with towns and cities boasting a unique cuisine (and they make sure you know), more variety of food would be a good addition to the match day experience. Imagine a single serving dalkgalbi in Chuncheon with a pint of local beer?

The same applies to alcohol. I don't know if this has been tried extensively in the past, but with a huge upsurge in microbreweries around Korea in recent years, trucks or tents selling locally produced beer from smaller breweries would be cool. I've seen something similar in Changwon and Chuncheon, but if this could be applied nationwide, I'm sure fans would love it. 

Come to Chuncheon and try our famous dalkgalbi with a local lager.

At the KBO exhibition and store in Yeongdeungpo, they slapped a K League logo on beers and makoli produced elsewhere. It can be done.

The match day atmosphere

Firstly, dump the cheerleaders. I understand that K League isn't Europe and we shouldn't look there for inspiration. The atmosphere is good at almost every ground in K League 1 and some in the second tier. But why do clubs employ cheerleaders? What value do they bring to a game? In March, at the season's first Suwon derby, the home cheerleaders spent most of the game admiring the noise from the away end. All the songs and chanting at Castle Park emanate from the stand without cheerleaders.

Second, tone down the walk-out music. Some clubs pump the music as the players emerge from the tunnel - looking particularly at Jeonbuk Motors - but it doesn't contribute to the overall experience. It is loud music for the sake of it, and often it isn't something you sing along to. 

Lastly, drop the overbearing MCs. A Big Game at Big Bird is the best experience in Korea. There are no cheerleaders, the walk-out music isn't as overbearing as others, the MC is basically used to announce additional time and substitutions, and the MC doesn't appear to rally the rest of the crowd to follow the example of the hardcore fans. They are cheerleaders with a microphone. Let the chanting grow organically.

At Ulsan's trophy lift in December, the MC played a far bigger role than should be accepted. Does anybody like or want this?

Waiting for the players to emerge from the tunnel is an ear-splitting experience in Jeonju. 

Clubs need to raise awareness in the local community

In the Korean domestic sporting landscape, baseball is a behemoth. In 2023, the KBO boasted its third-highest attendance total in league history, welcoming over 8.1 million fans through the gates. The season starts after and finishes before the K League season, but with games scheduled every weekend from March to October (except for All-Star), that's a lot of games to watch and fans to nab from football.

Football has a major battle in the cities where a professional club exists in both sports. Look at Suwon; KT Wiz are the league's youngest club, having joined the KBO in 2015. That same year, Suwon FC were promoted to the top flight for the first time. The two clubs are based in the same sports complex but you'd hardly know a football team exists there. Having an owner as powerful as KT obviously helps to foot the bill for expensive advertising, as the area around the complex is an homage to the baseball team. Even the bus stops are baseball-themed. Suwon FC need to elbow their way in, somehow.

FC Anyang are my local team. At major junctions in the city, banners hang from lamposts advertising upcoming fixtures, and certain bus stops display messages of support for the team through adverts. Anyang are a great club, but they need more help improving their awareness. Flags and banners throughout the city would help, plus bars and restaurants dedicated to showing their games on TV.

Especially in K League 2, but not limited to there, if you walk around a city one hour before kick-off, how often do you get the sense a match is taking place?

Social media needs to improve

Some clubs are better than others, and one is absolutely terrible. Take the recently relegated Suwon Samsung Bluewings. Yes, it is off-season but the only addition to their Instagram account since Kim Ju-chan was nominated for Young Player of the Month on December 13th is a press release about Suwon FC's plans to groundshare with the Bluewings. They didn't even post a Merry Christmas message (unlike every other club). 

FC Seoul is much better with news on departing players, new contracts, and a potentially game-changing managerial appointment. Most clubs wish their players a happy birthday and it is common across the league to post "THANK YOU" messages to departing players and coaches. However, I'd love to see more videos and posts about each club's history, tradition, stadium, and local surroundings. Photographs of the stadium, inside and outside, would be great, too. 

As we discussed on the podcast around the Super Match, the Bluewings brought 8,000 fans to Sangam. Instagram was flooded with videos and pictures of their delirious fans following the important victory over their great rivals. Moments like this aren't limited to just Suwon of course. Clubs could start telling their tale through their supporters, focusing on fan culture. Basically, just a little bit more information and access.

Better kick-off times

Luke Evans, a familiar face in these parts, advocated for better kick-off times in the Christmas special. A big bone of contention, understandably, is the late Sunday night kick-off, especially in Jeju, but not restricted to the island. The World Cup stadium is over 40 km from Jeju Aiport, meaning fans often have to take Monday off to watch their team. In 2023, three of Jeju's first four home games were on Sunday, but it wasn't until round 25 that they hosted the first of two Sunday 19:00 games.

(Of course, the same applies in reverse. As much as possible, Jeju United should be spared Sunday night kickoffs on the mainland).

Korea is a small country and transportation is fairly cheap, but I understand not everyone wants to pay for the KTX. Some clubs, especially Luke's Incheon United, are far from an intercity train station. Therefore, leaving Pohang or Gwangju at 9pm and taking a 4-hour bus isn't ideal. Could the 19:00 slot be reserved for two geographically close clubs?

During the non-boiling months, Saturday and Sunday kick-off times are 14:00, 16:30, and 19:00. It makes perfect sense to play a game in Jeju at any time other than Sunday 7 pm, and for clubs situated far away to play at a more reasonable time.

Several times throughout the season, fans have been offered double-header opportunities. These are a great way to tick off two stadiums on the same day. Realistically, these are only available in Gyeonggi-do (K League 1 and 2) and Seoul. More of the same, please.

Jeju WC Stadium is a beautiful ground to watch football. Who wants to rush back to the airport after a 7pm game?

K League needs a store in Seoul.....

Every department store in the country has an MLB store and now there's an increasing number of NBA shops, too. K League obviously does not need a shop in every department store but a single, dedicated, store in the capital would help grow the brand. Imagine a centralized store featuring goods from all the clubs (in the top 2 leagues), the national team, and the WK League? 

In Yeongdeungpo's Times Square mall, basement floor 2, there's an exhibition showing the 40th anniversary of the K League. Next door, is a small pop-up store selling alcohol, trading cards, and a limited selection of, quite frankly, uninteresting stock. A store of that size might be too small, but there wouldn't need to one too much bigger.

I visited the exhibition last Friday. It was nice to see so many people in Times Square wearing K League jackets, hats, and scarves.

The KBO exhibition in Yeongdeungpo features a lot of amazing retro shirts (not for sale)

....and Incheon Airport

Okay, this one is far-fetched and a tad whacky, but bear with me. Retail space is presumably extremely expensive but as Incheon is the primary gateway for people exiting the country, the league will benefit from last-minute purchases. I love sports shops in airports or even traditional gift shops (if you've been through Dublin Aiport, Carroll's is a great example) and a small K League/Korean sports store would be a brilliant addition. Yes? No? Okay. Scrap it!

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