Struggling K-League turning to Southeast Asia for assistance

South Korea's K-League is regularly lauded as one of the strongest football competitions across Asia and one for others to emulate. Yet as Paul Williams reports, all is far from rosy in the sovereign state...

He’s yet to have an impact on the field – indeed he’s yet to make the bench – but 21-year-old Vietnamese star Luong Xuan Truong (pictured above) has had a big impact off the field for struggling K-League side Incheon United.

Languishing at the bottom of the table and without a win in the first two months, Incheon have at least enjoyed a significant increase in interest from both fans and businesses in Vietnam since signing Truong last December.

It could prove critical for the future prosperity of a club that has battled difficult financial times.

“The interest from Vietnam is huge,” Incheon United general manager Jung Eui-suk told FourFourTwo. “It is the first time a K-League team has signed a Southeast Asian player since Piyapong (Pue-on) from Thailand about 20 years ago.

“It is big news not only in the football world, but also in the business world. There are consistent enquiries from many companies about Truong’s status.

“Now he is only playing in the reserve team, (but) once he plays for the first team I expect not only the stadium attendance but also the media exposure will increase dramatically.”

Off-the-field, Incheon United are one of a number of K-League sides struggling to make ends meet, as the gulf between the bigger clubs – the likes of Jeonbuk Hyundai and FC Seoul, backed by two of Korea’s corporate giants – and the smaller “citizen” clubs, owned by local governments, continues to grow.

Luong has excelled for Vietnam at all levels. Photo: thethao247.vn

Incheon United struck trouble in 2014 when they twice failed to pay players’ salaries on time, with an official of the Incheon Metropolitan Government telling Korean media at the time “the financial circumstance of the club is not good”.

Reports last month also suggested that 10 former players are suing the club for unpaid salaries, while the club owes US$250,000 (S$343,000) in performance bonuses to its current players.

We invested a lot of money into the club over the last two years, but the results were disastrous

Meanwhile another citizen club, Gyeongnam FC, was on the brink of extinction after relegation in 2014, with the local government threatening to withdraw funding for the team.

“We have invested a lot of money into the club over the last two years, but the results were disastrous,” South Gyeongsang Governor Hong Joon-pyo said at the time.

“Professionals have to be judged by the outcomes, not the process. After a special inspection [of the club’s operations], disbandment of the team will be decided.”

The club survived, but currently sits last in the second tier K-League Challenge after starting the season with a 10-point deduction for its involvement in a match fixing scandal.

Jung acknowledges the league has a structural issue that it needs to overcome.

“Yes, there is a major structural issue,” he conceded. “The corporate clubs have the money to get expensive players and have a better environment for the players. Therefore, it is no wonder that they have better results.”

Lee Young-pyo, a former national team star who is seen by some as a future president of the Korean Football Association, agreed and told FourFourTwo there needs to be a policy in place to support the smaller clubs.

“I think it's important to recognise that as big clubs are able to become stronger, there is a need for some kind of policy or mechanism that would give smaller clubs an opportunity to strengthen their teams along with the big teams in the league,” the former Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund defender said.

Former national team star Lee Young-pyo is calling for change

Jung’s plan is to eventually move Incheon United to a new ownership model so they are not at the mercy of frugal bureaucrats who often place politics ahead of football.

“Our five year plan is developing and settling down a business model for Incheon United to operate by itself without Incheon City's funding,” he said.

“At the same time, the complete independence from politics is also on the list.”

We've discussed playing back in the K-League ... but doubt what would change if we do

- Ki Sung-Yueng

The other major issue facing the league is the lack of fan support, with average crowds nose-diving in recent years.

Last year’s average attendance was just 7,720 after reaching as high as 12,901 back in 2008.

It’s not just administrators that are worried by the decline. Ki Sung-yueng, current captain of the Korean national team, told Korean media last year he is concerned for the future of the K-League.

“There are lots of thoughts in my head when I see the (low) attendance, including at FC Seoul – there is no improvement since I played for them,” he said. Ki started his career in Seoul and was there from 2006-09.

“I know there are many people who put in their best effort to improve the game and achieve some improvement, but there is still a long way to go.

“I usually talk to Lee Chung-yong about how the K-League could be better than now. We've discussed about playing back in the K-League once our time in Europe finishes, but also doubt what would change if we do so.

Korean captain Ki says plenty of work needs to be done

“Would our return be a benefit to the league? That's one of the questions as well. Recently we've witnessed the Chinese league pour tonnes of money in. Not only the money but also the attendance and public interest are dramatically increased.

“That makes me worry about the K-League even more.”

Incheon United have suffered a sharp decline in attendances, despite moving from the cavernous 49,000 capacity Incheon Munhak Stadium to the purpose-built 20,000-seat Sungui Arena Park in 2012.

In 2007 the club averaged over 16,000 fans at each home game, yet by 2015 that had dropped to as little as 4,863.

Jung pointed to a number of outside factors that affected attendances in recent years – including the Sewol Ferry incident in 2014 and MERS epidemic in 2015 – but concedes these are excuses and the club needs to do better to engage with the local Incheon community.

“Basically it falls to the club's responsibility so we need to improve the communication to the fans,” he said.

“We feel K-League clubs do not appeal to the local communities enough. Citizen's clubs exist to promote the locals’ happiness and value of the city, so the city of Incheon itself should be loved by its people first to let them love its football club as well.

“That's why our catchphrase in 2016 is ‘We are Incheon’.”

The issue of player retention is one faced by the whole league.

The smaller clubs struggle to keep their best players from joining the league’s bigger clubs, while with declining budgets from their corporate backers, the bigger clubs are also losing their best players to not only Europe, but increasingly China, Japan and the Middle East.

John Mou, managing director of Repucom Korea, explained in a report earlier this year the issues faced by K-League clubs.

K-League clubs have been on the decline in recent years

“The K-League from a commercial point of view is quite different to many of the leagues around the world,” Mou explained.

“Going back to when it started, the government asked the companies to run clubs and when they did that, whatever money was spent on that club, there was a tax benefit given to the companies.

“Now, as companies struggle financially and the government has been shrinking the tax benefits over the years, investments are less and less every year. That pushes players to go abroad rather than stay in Korea, or the clubs struggle to hire good players from overseas.”

Lee told FourFourTwo there are scores of people worried about the growing trend.

“It is certainly true that there are many people who are concerned about the absence of elite players in the K-League,” he said.

“The elite players will be staying in the market with a strong financial base and it is not easy to change this pattern.”

Increasingly, that strong financial base is not in Korea, as the major corporations behind some of the biggest clubs cut costs.

Suwon Bluewings are a perfect example. One of Asia’s most decorated clubs, Suwon were backed heavily by Samsung in their early years which led to instant success, including back-to-back Asian Champions League titles in 2001-02.

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However, when the running of the club was moved in 2014 to Cheil Worldwide Inc., Samsung’s marketing arm, its operating budget was slashed, hindering its ability to not only sign new star players, but keep the ones they had. Goalkeeper Jung Sung-ryong was let go, as was North Korean striker Jong Te-se.

In an attempt to diversify their revenue streams, for the first time in their history Suwon signed sponsors outside of the Samsung group of companies, with dairy company Maeil and Chinese beer maker Tsingtao announced earlier this year new sponsors of the four-time K League champions.

That prompted an angry reaction from fans, who saw this as further evidence of Samsung’s declining interest in their club.

The clubs also struggle to receive any significant income from television rights, the main source of income for most football clubs around the world, with the K-League television deal reportedly worth only US$5 million (S$6.85m) a season.

By way of comparison, the Chinese Super League recently signed a new deal worth $250m a season, and while they don’t release the details publicly, the J-League’s deal is believed to be worth around $20m a year.

In Australia the A-League earns roughly $29m a year, which they are aiming to double in a new deal next year, while even the Premier League of Thailand’s new deal reaps $30m per season.

Thai great Piyapong was a trailblazer in Korean football

The search for new revenue streams is part of the reason why Incheon United have turned their attention to Southeast Asia.

“We didn't sign Truong only for marketing in Southeast Asia, but I can't deny that the marketing perspective is a part of his deal,” Jung said.

“It is a common understanding in Korean football that the popularity of football in Southeast Asia bypasses that in North East Asia.

“We researched for four months about a market and that's how we found Truong. Currently we are looking even further to expand our market. For sure, it will be coming after Truong’s possible success in Incheon.”

If Incheon United, and other clubs, are to tap into other markets then it’s important that Truong succeeds.

If he does, a whole new world could await the K-League.

Main photo: Incheon United