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Unsuccessful initial tender raises questions over K-League’s domestic media strategy

Son Heung-Min of South Korea applauds fans after the international friendly match between South Korea and Iran at Seoul World Cup Stadium on June 11, 2019 in Seoul, South Korea. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

  • Earlier this year, Korea’s K-League and the Korean Football Association pooled their media rights
  • But an initial tender, with a reserve price equivalent to $21m per year, attracted no firm bids
  • The deadline has been extended into 2020, and the terms changed to allow consortia to bid

The K-League looked on in envy in 2016, as Japan’s top tier J.League sold domestic broadcast rights to DAZN for $2bn over ten years.

It did the same in March this year as – closer to home – the Korean Baseball Organization sold a package of digital rights for $97m over five years, a record in Korean sports.

In 2019, the K-League received just ₩5.9bn($5.1m/€4.6m) in media rights revenue. So in November, the league and the Korea Football Association – which earns about $8.5m per season selling national-team rights – pooled their media rights in the hope of becoming more than the sum of their parts.

Broadcasters were invited to bid for domestic and national team games, priced at least $21m per year over four years. There were reports of 20 interested parties, but no firm bids were made by the December 6 deadline.

“The KFA and K-League misunderstood not only the current market situation but also the real value of their products,” says Baik Jung-hyun, head of strategic programming and planning at Korea Broadcasting Systems (KBS), the national public broadcaster.

KBS thought the reserve price was too high: “So we didn’t bid.”

A bumpy decade for K-League

There was hope that the thrilling title race and relegation battle in the 2019 K-League would help. Compared to the previous season, attendance and television ratings increased significantly, with the K-League first and second divisions increasing 50 per cent and 75 per cent respectively,” Sa Doo-jin, the K-League’s broadcasting rights manager, tells SportBusiness.

But while encouraging, the rise in average attendance to 8,013 in the past season is just a slight return after a decade of decline for Asia’s oldest professional league.

After the massive match-fixing scandal of 2011, attendances fell from from 11,638 in 2011 to 5,381 by 2018, and not only because clubs were told not to include free tickets in their figures.

Lee Keun-Ho (L) of Ulsan Hyundai and Km Dae-Ho of Pohang Steelers compete for the ball during a K-League match between Pohang Steelers and Ulsan Hyundai. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Viewing figures are also not high. KBS, SBS and MBC, Korea’s three big free-to-air broadcasters, signed a four-year deal for K-League rights in 2016 but rarely broadcast games live on their free-to-air channels. Less than ten games were shown on terrestrial television per season and with little publicity or promotion, ratings were low.

“The average rating of a K-league game is below one per cent on free-to-air media and below 0.3 per cent on cable networks,” says Baik. “In baseball, a normal game gets around two per cent but in the post season championship series it is six per cent. Baseball has more spectators, more games, more commercials and more ratings.”

“It has been a struggle for the K-League to get enough exposure because it has same time schedule as the Korean Baseball league,” says Sa.

A failed attempt?

Tying the K-league in with the national team seemed like a winning move. Earlier this decade, national team games – even outside World Cups and Olympics – could still pull in 10 million viewers.

The belief was that – if Tottenham Hotspur star Son Heung-min (the 2019 Asian Player of the Year) could tempt broadcasters to the national-team matches – the league could leverage this to ensure more prime-time live coverage, and thus greater promotion and a better pitch to sponsors.

But even Son’s appeal may not be enough. “Son is an exceptional player, but his value and popularity has not converted into commercial output for broadcasters,” Baik explains. “Definitely without Son, it would be a disaster but with Son, the ratings of national team matches are lower than the Park Ji-Sung period [around 2005 to 2011] by about 30 per cent.

“Since the early 2010s, the Korean national team is mostly composed of players who are playing in foreign leagues. The connection between the K-League and national team has grown weaker and that weakens the main connection between KBS and the K-League too.”

What now?

On December 9, the league and association extended their deadline for bidding to January 13, 2020. “The rebidding process is likely to be livelier,” says Lee Jung-seop of the KFA. “Consortiums will be allowed this time and we are going to push hard to get the best deal.”

Urawa Red Diamonds supporters celebrate their team’s victory after the AFC Champions League round of 16 second leg match between Ulsan Hyundai and Urawa Red Diamonds at Ulsan Munsu Stadium in June, 2019. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

It was a consortium including giant internet portal Naver, popular messaging service Kakao and telcos LG and SK that paid $97m for Korean baseball’s online rights.

But Baik is not convinced that the K-League can achieve something similar. “It is not a matter of deadline but a matter of market value. And in the current Korean media industry, all the traditional broadcasters are now experiencing tough times, so we need to be very careful when investing in sports.”

In the longer-term, the league needs to focus on improving the fan experience and building interest in the wider region.

K-League teams are slowly leaving the mammoth 2002 World Cup arenas that saw clubs like Incheon United and Daegu FC play to four-figure crowds in stadiums with over 50,000 seats. They have constructed much smaller boutique stadiums and Daejeon Citizen are thinking of following suit.

More can be done. The J.League has been aggressive in promoting itself across Southeast Asia and recruiting top players from Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia.

Only Malaysia OTT platform Sportsfix currently shows K-League games elsewhere in the region, and the K-League will be hoping for fruitful returns from its recently signed international rights deal with sports data specialist Sportradar.

“We still believe that the K-League has its place in the sports industry, but it is not sufficient for major broadcasters to pay substantial money,” says Baik.

“If the K-League had popularity in other countries then at KBS we could change our strategy,” he adds. “At the moment however, there is not much possibility of that.”

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