Back in May when the final whistles were blown in the English Premier League and the three divisions of the English Football League, everyone knew immediately which teams would be promoted and relegated and which teams would therefore be playing in which competitions in 2016/17. Of course they also knew WHERE all of these teams would be playing.
Here in Hong Kong it’s taken until August (the month when the season is due to start) to finalise teams and venues. This timescale is equally frustrating for the HKFA, clubs, fans, media, indeed all stakeholders. I’m afraid it’s a reflection of where professional football in Hong Kong is right now; it’s still very unsophisticated. “Wasn’t Project Phoenix supposed to solve the problems”, I hear you say.
Well let’s look at that objectively. In relation to professional football, Project Phoenix recommended a number of things including; the creation of a new Premier League, implementing a Club Licensing system etc. When the recommendations were formulated it was recognized that extra funding would be required. However for understandable reasons, no additional money was actually allocated by the Government to go directly to clubs. As a result the HKFA had the resources to administer changes to the professional tier but not to strengthen the clubs themselves. So the new Hong Kong Premier League was established and I believe there have been some positive changes including:
· New brand and title sponsorship
· Club licencing provides a framework for professionalization of clubs and improves our position in AFC competitions
· Significantly increased prize money (x 4)
· Solidarity fund for poorer clubs
· Creation of player support unit
· Match-manipulation monitoring has reduced the potential for fixing games
· The Government has increased the funding to District Teams (x 3)
These are all steps in the right direction and have had some benefit. For example we are now ranked higher by the AFC and have gained entry into the AFC CL play-offs. However I can fully understand why some people say that these changes are merely cosmetic and why clubs criticize the HKFA for not doing enough to help, especially financially. The fact is that HKFA is doing what it can with the resources available. It costs us around HK$5m per annum to run the Premier League. More or less everything is done for the clubs. The HKFA takes care of all match day operations, provides referees, spends HK$1m+ on marketing and promotion, organizes and administers the broadcasting arrangements, negotiates the use of venues etc etc.
You might well ask whether the HKFA should really be subsidizing professional clubs in this way? I think in the short term, the answer is yes. A strong professional football league is fundamental to the overall success of football. It encourages young people to start playing and of course it ensures a player pathway into the HK Representative Team. The importance of a strong representative team speaks for itself.
I would much prefer the League to be run as an independent entity (as in many other countries) and indeed this was one of the recommendations of Project Phoenix. A couple of years ago we tried to make this happen and established a working party which was supposed to be led by the clubs to look at structures, resources, timescale etc. The outcome was very disappointing. There was huge apathy from the clubs once they knew what was involved. So we are a long way off having an independent league and so in the meantime it will continue to be run by the HKFA. It is a challenging task, made more difficult for a number of reasons some of which I will elaborate on below.
Continuity and strength of Clubs: As I said at the start of this blog it is very difficult to plan effectively if you don’t know which teams will exist from one season to the next. Many clubs in Hong Kong operate very precariously and are totally dependent on ‘bosses’ and/or sponsors. Most people know that we target 12 teams for the PL. At one stage this summer it looked like we could go down from 9 to 8. We would have been criticized for this and so a number of initiatives were put in place to increase the number.
So for example we reacted positively to Guangzhou R and F’s request to play in our league. We also encouraged the HK Football Club to consider promotion. We also looked to re-establish the former team ‘Saplings’. As it happens all of these initiatives came to fruition and we have ended up with 11 teams.
This has resulted in criticism too. Take the case of R and F for example. On the face of it, this is no different to Swansea City from Wales playing in the EPL or Wellington Phoenix from New Zealand playing in the A League. Of course the political situation is very different here and I am sure this has stoked some of the negativity. We have done our best to make the league more sustainable, interesting and competitive by allowing them to play, subject to meeting certain criteria. They will have to sign local players, be based in Hong Kong and pay a significant entry fee (which will be filtered down to the other clubs). I believe they will want to be competitive and that it will not merely be a development squad. There are two ways to look at this situation and I would accept there are pros and cons. Time will tell whether it was the right decision or not.
Similarly in the case of the HK Football Club some people have criticized us for allowing an ‘amateur’ team to participate. Firstly they did finish second in Division 1 last season so on sporting merit they have a case. All players will be given a ‘professional’ player’s contract and although I accept that very little money will be payed to players, there is no ‘minimum wage’ in the Club Licence or League Rules. They will have to abide by all of the Club Licence requirements and comply with all other rules and regulations. Whether they will be competitive also remains to be seen. I have watched a couple of their pre-season friendlies and they are looking quite solid.
The financial resilience of some of the professional clubs in Hong Kong is so weak that throughout June and July we could not confirm which teams would play in 2016/17. Even the Champions, Eastern have had well-publicised financial problems in the closed season. Faced with these uncertainties, difficult decisions have had to be made. Not everyone will agree with those decisions but they have been based on what we believe is the best for HK Football. Like I said, it would be nice to know at the end of every season which clubs will be playing next season. Club sustainability needs to be addressed for that to happen.
Which brings me onto the next major issue.
Venues: Another perennial issue is the availability, quality and choice of venue. There are so many issues here, it is difficult to know where to start. With the exception of the HK Stadium and Mong Kok all of the other venues cater for community use as well as being the home to a professional football team. The wear and tear inevitably results in the need for maintenance closures. This season it is particularly bad with a number of stadia being closed for extended periods of time. It is impossible to plan a regular schedule under these circumstances. The HK Stadium itself will not be available for December and from mid-March onwards. This will put huge pressure on the playing surface at Mong Kok. If it lasts the season in reasonable condition I will be amazed. Many venues don’t have floodlights, which precludes mid-week fixtures and some still restrict cheering activities, like banging drums. Until there is a strategy for addressing these deficiencies, there will always be problems. These manifest themselves in many ways, not least the spectator numbers. Watching football is a habit and fans need to know where their team will be playing rather than the continual move from venue to venue.
Club Licence: The CL is an important and accepted part of football. The HKPL Licence is based on the AFC CL Club Licence criteria but with certain allowances made in recognition that some of our clubs are starting from a low base. I would contend that there is nothing in the HKPL Licence that a good professional football club shouldn’t already be doing. It is based on common sense principles. Some clubs in Hong Kong take it seriously (especially the ones that aspire to play in AFC Competitions). The sad truth is that other clubs pay lip service to it and do the minimum to pass - whilst others try and ignore it altogether. The clubs that fall into the latter category clearly feel that we need them more than they need the Licence! In other words; would we really kick them out of the League if they fail? Some will fail this year and I will be recommending sanctions to the Board. It is unlikely that they will be kicked out though because this would be counter-productive. It is disappointing that some clubs view the Licence as something to avoid rather than viewing it as a tool for self-improvement.
There are other issues and problems that impact negatively on professional football in Hong Kong such as a lack of club-based marketing and fan engagement, the legacy of integrity issues, poor treatment of players, lack of respect for officials; I could go on.
If I am brutally honest I would say that Project Phoenix and some of the changes we have tried to introduce have brought into focus the long term structural and cultural problems that have existed for some time, rather than solved them. Some issues have been addressed but others haven’t. We simply haven’t had the resources to make sufficient interventions in professional football to make a difference. I think it’s time to face facts and understand that the ‘evolutionary’ approach (which is all that could be achieved under Project Phoenix) needs to be replaced by more of a ‘revolutionary’ approach. You only have to look at what is being done across the border to see that it is possible to do this if there is support from all stakeholders including the Government, the commercial/corporate sector, Clubs, fans, the media and yes, the Football Association too. This will mean finding ways to give the clubs more money but make it conditional on taking the Club Licence more seriously and actively delivering on youth development, coaching standards etc. Money has made a difference to us in other areas such as Referee Development, Women’s Football, Futsal, Grassroots Football etc and it could make a difference to professional football too. The public sector must be a more proactive catalyst for commercial investment. I am coming to the view that nothing will change significantly unless there are wholesale, radical changes.
This summer has been a frustrating one for those of us who want professional football in Hong Kong to be competitive, sustainable and attractive. We at the HKFA have done our best to plan and prepare for 2016/17. It’s good that we have 11 teams and that each team will play 20 matches in the League and take part in 3 cup competitions. I really hope that it will be an exciting season with good quality football and that the gap between the top and bottom clubs is not too great. Now that the season is upon us, I sincerely wish that everyone can focus on matters on the pitch. I would urge fans to get behind their teams and the League.
Whilst my ever-enthusiastic and conscientious colleagues here at the HKFA will be doing their best to organize and promote the HKPL, I will be putting together a more ambitious and ‘revolutionary’ plan for the future of professional football in Hong Kong for future seasons. I already have lots of ideas, but these need to be formulated into a coherent plan. I hope to be able to share a discussion document on this subject before Christmas.
- 政府增加了對區隊的資金援助 (3倍)