HKFA Premier League
One of the key recommendations of Project Phoenix was the establishment of a fully professional league based on a club licence system. The rationale for this was quite clear. Compared to the past, the standard and popularity of the 1st Division has slumped to unacceptable levels. For a number of reasons we have entered a seemingly endless downward spiral of;
- Lowering standard of players and quality on the pitch leading to…
- Fewer spectators…..resulting in…..
- Less commercial (sponsor and TV interest)…. which in turn….
- Means less money for the Clubs….and therefore…..
- Reducing salaries for the players…. And so the spiral starts again.
The main problem is the lack of money in the sport which means that Clubs cannot invest in players, coaches and the other important things that Clubs need like Governance, management, marketing, administrative support etc. In Hong Kong Clubs don’t own their own facilities for playing and training and so (as well as the playing surface being poor due to overuse), they are denied vital secondary spend opportunities such as advertising, retail, food and beverage etc. The lack of a dedicated ground also means that Clubs (other than District teams) have no real affinity with a local community and therefore no fan base.
All of this has coincided with the ability to watch foreign matches on the television which has compounded the situation.
The current 1st Division is comprised of 12 Clubs and these are all very different. Some are commercial entities, some are part of wider Sports Associations and some are District-based. Some are managed very professionally and others less so. Indeed it would not be unreasonable or inaccurate to describe some as semi-professional ‘teams’, rather than fully professional ‘Clubs’.
We have to be honest and say that the public perception of the HKFA football leagues is not great. There is a commonly held view that the sport is run by the ‘bosses’ and that players and coaches are not afforded the respect they are due. In the past there have been match-fixing incidents which have further damaged the reputation of the sport locally.
Whether the perception is true or not is hardly the issue. The point is that for many, the top tier of the sport is tarnished to some extent and this is not attractive to either fans or prospective sponsors and supporters. The number of active spectators is embarrassingly low for a place the size of Hong Kong. Another important issue is that football does not offer an attractive enough career for an aspiring young footballer.
For all of the above reasons the situation must change. The top tier of football in Hong Kong should be the lifeblood of the sport. It should be sufficiently attractive to entice the best players and coaches who in turn will provide players for the Hong Kong representative teams. International success will encourage more young people into the sport as well as creating ‘local heroes’ for the domestic league thus drawing back the crowds. It is time to unwind the downward spiral and turn it into a virtuous circle.
It is acknowledged that this will not be easy, particularly for the Clubs themselves. The Premier League has to be the vehicle to lead that change. The HKFA is taking the bold step of linking participation in the new league to the attainment of a ‘licence’. The criteria for getting a licence must be carefully positioned. The targets should be stretching so that Clubs have to work on improvements to get a licence but not so strict that they require unrealistic levels of investment or workload. This is a difficult balance to get right especially in Hong Kong where the degree of sophistication of the Clubs varies so widely.
Initially the HKFA wanted to set the ‘licence benchmarks’ at the level required for Clubs to enter the AFC Champions League. However, on reflection this threshold was deemed to be too high for some our Clubs to reach, at least initially. Therefore there will be two levels of licence. Tier One is the AFC Champions League Club Licence Regulations. Clubs wishing to participate in this competition will need to attain this level. Tier Two will be the Hong Kong Premier League Club Licence Regulations. The criteria are the same for both licences but the thresholds and targets within them are different, with the Hong Kong Licence being easier to achieve. Clubs will be able to decide which level to apply for depending on their ambitions and resources. However any Club wishing to participate in the Hong Kong Premier League will need to obtain the Tier Two Hong Kong Premier League licence – that is a prerequisite.
The regulations set minimum standards (criteria) in a number of areas including:
- Sporting Merit
- Personnel and Administration
- Facilities (infrastructure)*
*Clubs are not responsible for this area because they don’t own the grounds. This will be a Government responsibility.
In adopting the two tier approach, the HKFA has listened to the concerns of Clubs and believes that it is not asking them to do anything other than would be expected of a professional football Club. For example, a proper legal constitution, financial transparency, qualified coaches, bona fide player contracts etc are all basic requirements that the League, fans, sponsors etc would expect to be already in place.
The HKFA wants to work in partnership with the Clubs in establishing the League and will be there to provide help, advice, template documents etc between now and when the Licence application are due to be submitted in May 2014.
Applications will be independently and objectively evaluated and there will be an appeals process.
Twelve Licences will be available for the 2014/15 season. First refusal will go to the top 11 finishing teams in the current 1st Division and the winners of the current Division 2.
It is important to note that eligibility to apply for a Licence does not automatically guarantee entry into the Premier League. Clubs will need to pass the application process. Whilst it is hoped that all twelve teams will apply and be successful, we are not going to worry unduly if some Clubs don’t want to participate or fail to meet the standard. We will start the Premier League with less teams if necessary because we only want professional, committed and ambitious Clubs to play in our top tier of football.
I do not believe that the criteria for entry are too onerous but it is inevitable that Clubs will need to invest some time and money in obtaining a Licence. We will do our utmost to secure additional resources that can be used to help the Clubs to ‘gear up’. We will also expect them to find the additional resources required. At the end of the day it is the Clubs that will ultimately benefit if the League is successful by attracting more money from gate receipts, sponsorship, merchandising, prize money etc.
If the new Premier League is established as a sustainable entity, it is the intention of the HKFA to ultimately set up the League as an autonomous body. Under such an arrangement the Clubs would be responsible for match-day organization and through a League Committee be more involved with setting the League Rules etc. We believe that this is what the Clubs want and the HKFA is happy to facilitate that. However the Premier League must be established first and prove that is sustainable and capable of self-regulation and management.
I sincerely hope that the Clubs will view the Premier League as a positive catalyst for change. I repeat, there is nothing in the criteria that a professional club should not already be doing. The criteria are attached so you can see for yourself.
The next few months are critical for the future of the Professional game in Hong Kong.
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