HK soccer could benefit from a nationwide presence

Updated: 2016-11-14 09:21

By Ma Chao(HK Edition)

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In early October, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) arrested five players from Hong Kong Pegasus FC, a soccer club competing in the Hong Kong Premier League (HKPL), over alleged match-fixing. It was a rare occasion when a piece of news concerning the local soccer league hit the front pages of the city's newspapers and was broadcast during prime time on TV news channels. Most of the time, you rarely read or watch any news about the HKPL in the local press.

Make no mistake, it does not mean soccer is ignored in the city. On the contrary, many Hong Kong people are crazy about the game. However, fans' focus is on the major European leagues such as the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Germen Bundesliga. Fans pay TV networks to watch live broadcasts of the European leagues, buy shirts of Arsenal, Barcelona or Bayern Munich and follow stars in the top leagues such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

HK soccer could benefit from a nationwide presence

Meanwhile, little attention has been given to the HKPL. The local league proceeds unnoticed. Despite the low entrance fee of minimum HK$30, the average number of spectators on site for each match in the 2015-16 season was a pathetic 1,018, and some matches could only attract tens of spectators. Live TV broadcasts of HKPL games are rarely watched too, and local TV networks never promote the local league in their subscription packages. On the competitive level, the HKPL has so far failed to recruit any big international names, and there has never been a Hong Kong club that could win any Asian title.

Across the boundary, the soccer market looks completely different. With the injection of enormous amount of money from big enterprises on the mainland, the Chinese Super League (CSL) has been able to attract star players from overseas. Big names in the sport like Hulk, Ramires, Paulinho, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Graziano Pelle have been enrolled by CSL clubs. Stimulated by this star effect, fans have flocked to the stadiums: In the first half of the 2016 season, average attendance surpassed 25,000 people per match. In the last few matches of the 2016 season, despite the humiliating performance of the Chinese national team in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, the fans' enthusiasm seemed not to be affected, and stadiums were still packed with spectators.

The attention of fans has significantly raised the commercial value of the mainland soccer league, generating a huge amount of income. Ping An Insurance has bought the naming rights of the CSL for 150 million yuan ($22 million, or HK$172 million) a year. The price tag for TV broadcasting of the league has been raised to a staggering 8 billion yuan for the five years between 2016 and 2020. In comparison, Tencent signed with the US' National Basketball Association (NBA), which is also very popular among Chinese fans, for the broadcasting rights on the mainland, paying out 3.2 billion yuan for five years.

On the competition level, though the national team is a disaster and a laughing stock among soccer fans, mainland clubs have made some progress in Asia. Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC, which has held the CSL title for six consecutive years, has won the AFC Champions League twice - in 2013 and 2015. And at least one Chinese club has been able to reach the quarter finals of the AFC Champions League since 2012.

To stimulate the lukewarm local soccer market, the Hong Kong Football Association (HKFA) may consider capitalizing on the booming market on the mainland through cooperation with the CSL. The HKFA has taken a first step by inviting Guangzhou R&F to organize a satellite team - R&F FC (Hong Kong) - to compete in the 2016-17 season of the HKPL. Actually, a further step could be taken - a Hong Kong club joining the CSL.

As a city with over 7 million inhabitants, there is no doubt Hong Kong can maintain a soccer club in the top national league. It would be a multi-win solution for all parties. Local fans would be able to watch better games at home, more capital would be injected into the club due to the higher degree of attention, and soccer culture would be further fostered in the city. Ultimately Hong Kong soccer would be the biggest winner. The HKFA should seriously consider this idea.

(HK Edition 11/14/2016 page1)