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K League under global spotlight as it resumes season

Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors' Lee Dong-gook celebrates his goal with his team staff against Suwon Samsung Bluewings during the opening game of South Korea's K-League football match at Jeonju World Cup Stadium in Jeonju on May 8, 2020. (Photo by JUNG YEON-JE/AFP via Getty Images)

Korean football’s K League became the focus of the football and wider sports world’s attention at the weekend, as it resumed its 2019-20 season after suspension due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The league began on Friday evening with a game between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon Samsung Bluewings that kicked off at 7pm local time, and was streamed live online for free, globally, on YouTube and Twitter. Five more matches were played over the weekend.

The cumulative audience on Twitter was reported in Korean media to be around 3.4 million.

The league was buoyed by media-rights deals in 36 countries around the world ahead of the opening weekend.

After a slew of deals last week, it announced agreements in Afghanistan, Armenia, AzerbaijanBangladesh, BelarusBhutan, KazakhstanKyrgyzstan, the Maldives, MoldovaNepal, Pakistan, RussiaSri Lanka, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, Uzbekistan. A deal was also signed with the BBC, the UK public-service broadcaster.

The deals were negotiated by the league’s international media rights distribution agency Sportradar.

The restart saw several initiatives that will be of interest to other leagues and competitions around the word hoping to restart soon. Recorded crowd sounds were played in stadiums to create atmosphere for players and those watching on television. At the Pohang Steelers v Busan I’Park K League 1 match, crowd sounds were played. The Steelers had 10 sound effects, including applause, booing, sighing and chants.

Players made a hand gesture to signal gratitude and support for medical staff fighting the pandemic in pre-match photographs, and as part of goal celebrations.

Seats in the stadiums were covered with slogans and banners in support of the teams, and expressing support and hope for the ongoing fight against Covid-19.

The deputy minister of the Korean government’s ministry of culture sports and tourism inspected the measures employed to make sure the opening match between Jeonbuk Hyundai v Suwon Samsung Bluewings match passed off safely, and met with officials from the Korea Professional Football League, which oversees the K League.

The K League told SportBusiness last week about the extensive measures it is operating under in order to limit the potential spread of Covid-19 due to the matches. UK digital platform Copa90, which has acquired streaming rights for the league, published an English-language list of some of the measures on its Twitter feed.

Everyone within the stadium had to maintain social distancing of two metres where possible. On the pitch, players bowed to each other instead of shaking hands, and were not allowed to spit or approach the referee closely. Players had to wear masks at all times except for during warm-up exercises and when they entered the pitch to play.

Media covering the match have not necessarily been tested for Covid-19 so were kept separate from the teams, with no mixed zone. There was a press briefing where reporters could ask questions of the two managers and one player.

The Winter News Korea website reported that deputy minister Choi Yoon-hee said: “Even in the midst of the Covid-19 difficulties, our professional football league, the best league in Asia, is holding an unbelievable opening game. We are grateful for the professional football federation and team officials who helped with the opening.

“I heard that you have had great interest in the rights to broadcast our football abroad…I hope that it will comfort our weary people and increase the international status of our professional football.”

Jose Morais, head coach of defending K League 1 champions Jeonbuk, said after his team’s match: “This is a great opportunity to promote the K League throughout the world. I think our players went into the game with a sense of responsibility, rather than any pressure, that they wanted to put on a good show for the international viewers.”

Morais also said he had been contacted by a Portuguese broadcaster interested in acquiring rights for the league.

There were several comments from those involved in the matches about the negative effect of the lack of fans. The InterFootball website reported that Jeonbuk captain Lee Dong-kook said after the game: “I realised the value of the fan. Without fans, a soccer game is meaningless.”

Morais said, “You could see that the players felt awkward playing in an empty stadium but it was great to finally start the season.”