Wednesday, 17 August 2016

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17

Hong Kong Premier League 2016/17


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.


Mark Sutcliffe, CEO, August 2016

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2016-17 香港超級聯賽

與外國其他頂級聯賽不同,香港超級聯賽僅於8月才可確定參賽隊伍及比賽場地,倉促的時間難免令本會、廣大球迷、傳媒以及一眾持分者感到無奈。我認為這亦反映出本地聯賽的現況 仍然不成熟。我聽到你們的疑問「鳳凰計劃不是應可解決所有問題嗎?」。

就讓我們客觀地分析,鳳凰計劃針對職業足球提議出多個事項包括成立超級聯賽、實施球會牌照制度等。而讓提議得以實行,額外的資金亦是必須的;不過,因為種種可理解的原因下,政府並沒有直接分配額外金錢予各球會。如是者,香港足球總會將資源用於管理職業足球的改變,而並非用於球會身上,促使香港超級聯賽得以成立。此外,我相信以下各個範疇亦得到正面改變:

  • 全新品牌及冠名贊助
  • 球會牌照制度提供球會職業化的框架,亦改善我們於亞洲賽事中的排名
  • 獎金顯著提升(4)
  • 為較小型的球會籌備資金
  • 成立球員支援小組
  • 監管比賽操縱問題,減少了賽事作假的可能性
  • 政府增加了對區隊的資金援助 (3)

以上的事項帶來不少好處,亦帶領著我們向正確方向前進。例如,我們於亞洲足協的排名有所提升,令我們得到亞冠盃的入場券。但我亦清楚明白為何有人會覺得這些轉變只是虛有其表,抑或者某些球會會認為足總並沒有提供足夠支援,尤其財政方面。事實上,足總善用可用的資源,包括每年花費港幣500萬來營運港超聯,而基本上所有花費亦從球會角度出發。足總亦管理所有比賽日的運作、提供球證、市場推廣(港幣100萬以上)、安排及管理直播事宜及商討場地之運用等等。

你或會質疑足總是否真的應該這樣的支援球會,但我認為短期來說,這樣做是正確的。一個完善的專業足球聯賽對本地足球成功與否非常關鍵。它既可以鼓勵年青一代參與足球,亦給予球員一條成為香港代表隊之路,而擁有一支有實力的代表隊當然非常重要。

我個人較希望聯賽可以由一家獨立機構營運 (如其他國家一樣),而這正正是鳳凰計劃內的提議之一。兩年前,我們曾嘗試成立一個由眾球會所組成的工作小組,以管理架構、資源及時間表等,但因球會的冷淡導致結果令人失望。因此,我們仍與成立獨立機構營運聯賽的模式有一段距離,在這段期間,聯賽仍會由足總營運。這是一個挑戰,其中包括以下原因:
  
球會之延續性:多支本地球會的營運方式不穩定,並完全依賴於「老闆」及贊助商。很多人知道港超聯的目標是擁有12支參賽球隊,但於今個夏天曾出現由原本的9隊減少至8隊的可能性。如真是這樣的話,我們無疑會被批評,因此我們想盡辦法去增加參賽隊伍。

其中包括我們對於廣州富力要求於港超聯作賽的方案表示正面;我們鼓勵香港足球會考慮升班;亦研究重組前球隊「港菁」的可行性。結果,這3個方案均得以實行,亦令港超聯最後有11支參賽隊伍。

這結果受到不少批評,以廣州富力的情況為例,表面上與威爾斯球隊史雲斯於英超作賽或紐西蘭球隊威靈頓鳳凰於澳職作賽一樣,但這裡的政治環境截然不同,導致得到不少負面聲音。我們要求廣州富力必須簽入多位本地球員以及繳付一筆參賽費用 (可讓其他球會受惠)以令聯賽的競爭性及可觀性不受影響。我亦相信他們會有一定競爭力。凡事均有兩面,我認為事情往往會有優點及缺點,時間會證明這決定正確與否。

香港足球會的情況相似,不少人批評我們批准「業餘」球隊參賽。首先,他們去季於甲組足球聯賽以第2名完成球季,而他們亦為所有球員提供「專業」球員合約,雖然酬勞不多,但球會牌照或聯賽規則並沒有針對「最低工資」之限制。再者,香港足球會仍需要附合球會牌照之要求及規定。他們之競爭力仍有待見證,但我觀看了兩場季前友誼賽,認為他們表演不俗。

67月期間,本地部分球會包括上屆冠軍東方的財政問題令我們難以確定201617年度港超聯的參賽隊伍。面對如此不穩定因素,我們必須作出艱難的決定。未必所有人會認同,但我們相信這些決定全都是為本地足球出發。當然,如果於球季結束時可明確知道下一季的參賽隊伍會是最理想的情況,最關鍵的就是球會的可持續性。

這亦引申至下一問題。

場地:場地供應、質素及選擇是另一個常在問題。除了香港大球場及旺角大球場外,其他所有場地均需要作為球隊主場的同時,滿足社區的用途需求,這無可避免地令球場不時需要閉門維修保養。更甚的是,今季多個場地需要延長關閉期,令我們不可能正常計劃賽程。香港大球場由12月起關閉至3月中,亦令於旺角大球場上作賽之需求增加。另外,多個球場缺乏泛光燈,以致不可能安排週中賽事;而仍有一些球場限制打氣活動包括打鼓等。除非有措施解決以上不足,否則問題仍然會存在。欣賞足球賽事是一種習慣,球迷絕不會希望他們支持的球隊不斷轉換主場作賽場地。

球會牌照:港超聯球會牌照是參照亞冠的球會牌照之準則,並跟據本地部份球會仍處於較起步的情況下放寬部分事項。我認為現時港超聯球會牌照的所有事項是基於常識的原則下設立,亦是現今專業球會所依從的。本地部分球會認真看待牌照制度(尤其是參與亞洲賽事的),但部分卻相反,不認為牌照制度可視作逐步改善球會的工具。這情況令人感到失望。

這個夏天對於本地足球要維持競爭力、可持續性及吸引力均有很大衝擊及挑戰。香港足球總會已盡一切努力計劃及籌備201617球季。最後有11支參賽隊伍,每支球隊需要進行20場聯賽以及於3個盃賽中比拼。我熱切希望所有球隊均充滿競爭性,為大家帶來緊急刺激的賽事。開季在即,我冀望所有人可將焦點放在球場上,廣大球迷一同支持球隊及整個聯賽。

與此同時,我亦正針對本港未來的球季,努力地草擬一份更有野心及「革命性」計劃。我已有不少想法,但仍需要將它們整合成互相協調及一致的計劃書,希望可於今年聖誕節前跟大家分享。


香港足球總會行政總裁薛基輔
一六年八月



4 comments:

  1. Dear Mark,

    I am still disappointed about R&F joined HKPL. It is not because of it's from mainland, but they actually formed an youth team instead of a senior team.

    I have studied (in amateur) many cases of expatriated football clubs playing domestic league for several cases, and R&F is actually quite a different case among those cases. I would classify the cases in 2 general types:

    I) The expatriated club in the league is the main / senior team. (e.g. Swansea City from Premier League, Burnei DPMM from S.League, Toronto FC from MLS)

    II) The expatriated club in the league is the youth team or B team, and having the senior team in other countries' league. (e.g. Alibirex Niigata in S.League and some in the past HK D1 League)

    Hong Kong R&F is actual a type II club. The most important problem of type II clubs is that they will only attract a very small amount of fans as the matter of non-main teams. They will most likely put effort in promoting the club for increasing the fan base of the senior team, but not the B team. I believe this is the opposite of the main objective of HKPL, which is increasing the fan base and the brand value.

    Permitting youth teams competing in HKPL is a real hurt for Hong Kong local football. (and actually I also disagree forming a Hong Kong youth team in HKPL.) It feels like the league is just a training league instead of a great branding league. The fans feel the technical level is not high enough as not all teams are senior. Hence the fans are not motivated to buy the tickets.

    Japan also wants to form a league with higher branding value. Although they formed an U22 team in the league, the team was only be permitted in the 3rd division (promotion not allowed and the team was collapsed).

    Expatriated clubs are OK for me but not the youth teams. I believe many fans have the same feeling. That is also the reason why someone suggested inviting Macau or even Taiwanese clubs to join HKPL, as they both do not have a professional league and most likely will form a senior team to compete in HKPL if they accepted.

    I hope my comment will be read and I am willing to continue making comments and suggestions as a fan of Hong Kong local football.

    Best regards,
    Tony

    ReplyDelete
  2. Dear Tony,
    Thanks for your comments.
    I am still hopeful that the R and F team will not be a 'youth team'. Of course you are right that they will not be R and F's first team but equally I am sure they will not want the humiliation of getting thrashed every week. I also agree that they won't generate much fan support and I am worried about that because it is one of the criteria we will be judged against. The choice of venue doesn't help either.
    You are correct to point out these issues and I appreciate you concerns. As I mentioned in my blog, I would much prefer we weren't in this position but the sad truth we must all face is that there aren't enough good professional teams in Hong Kong right now to make a sustainable Premier League. That is why we need to try new things until the situation improves. Although the HKFC deserve their chance, it is a reflection on where Hong Kong football is right now that we need to even contemplate an Amateur Club playing in the professional league.
    Regarding the U22 team I also feel that we are different to Japan. Personally I would like to see a U22 team playing in the League here until the standard and number of teams increase. The reason I say that is because with so few teams, the young players just don't get an opportunity to play. The average age of a HKPL player last season was 29. There is a huge lack of opportunity for aspiring players between 18 and 23 to play. This means that we are weak when it comes to playing in international competitions.
    We need to recognise where HK professional football is right now and base our plans on the current local circumstances.
    I am sure that this season will have its ups and downs. The HKFA must be honest and if we have made mistakes, then fine we will admit them and learn from them.
    Please keep on being a fan of Hong Kong football. I believe we are making progress but it is a slow and painful process and success is definitely not a straight line!!
    Regards and best wishes,
    Mark

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dear Mr. Sutcliffe,

    You have mentioned that the Macau club was not ready for this HKPL season and they might enter next season. Then would HKFA consider inviting them to take part in one of the Cup competitions this season? It should be easier to organize a Cup competition with 12 teams than with 11 teams.

    Benfica de Macau just competed in the 2017 AFC Cup qualifying round and they achieved one win and one loss which is respectable. They just need more competitive matches to increase their experience.

    Regards,

    Allan

    ReplyDelete
  4. Dear Allan,
    It's not a bad idea. I will check with our Competitions Department as to whether this could be accommodated.
    Thanks for the idea.
    Regards,
    Mark

    ReplyDelete