Hong Kong Premier League – A New Start
It’s public knowledge now that nine teams have applied for and been granted a Licence for the new Hong Kong Premier League which will kick-off in September. The establishment of the new Hong Kong Premier League was one of the key recommendations of Project Phoenix and its creation marks an important milestone in the rejuvenation of football in Hong Kong. The Premier League is one of the last recommendations to fall into place. When I started the job in September 2012 it was obvious to me that the Premier League could not be implemented in time for the 2013/14 season. The 2014/15 season was a more realistic target but even that has been a challenging timescale. I would like to thank my colleagues at the HKFA who have put a huge amount of work into making the new league a reality.
I would also like to thank the Clubs that have embraced the challenge and completed the Licence application. As you would expect, some of the Clubs have been more enthusiastic than others. The more positive (and I would like to think enlightened clubs) have seen the new league as an opportunity to review their governance, management and operation and to put measures in place to improve things both on and off the pitch. I hope the less enthusiastic clubs will eventually see the benefits of the new league once it is up and running.
In granting Hong Kong Premier League Licences for 2014/15, the HKFA has been quite ‘generous’ in its evaluation. Some of the bids were borderline passes but we have taken the view that for this first year only we can use pragmatic discretion and grant the Licence, conditional upon further information being provided within a reasonable timescale. For example we need more information from a number of the clubs on sources of funding and we need to be satisfied that players do not have ‘two contracts’. A number of the criteria for the inaugural Hong Kong Premier League Licence have been ‘watered down’ from the AFC CL Club Licence to give the Clubs time to reach the desired standard. This means that clubs have been asked to demonstrate that they are ‘working towards’ certain standards rather than them being ‘mandatory’. Over time we intend to harmonise the two Licences and so we can’t afford to be so lenient next year. This means that there is no room for complacency on the part of the clubs. It will be significantly harder to get a Licence next season. We will of course work with the clubs to address their weaknesses and to help those that are ambitious to improve further.
Hong Kong Premier League – What Will Be Different?
The new league is fundamental to our strategy because a vibrant professional tier attracts people to play football at the grassroots and provides players for the representative teams. As a result, the sport benefits from the top to the bottom. A poor standard of professional football drags everything down as has been evident for the last decade or so.
Given our existing starting point and the resources we have at our disposal it is unrealistic to expect things to change massively from one season to the next. When all is said and done, it is largely the same clubs playing at the same facilities. The new Premier League is about ‘evolution’ not ‘revolution’. When the J League was set up in Japan it was ‘revolutionary’ because it had an instant injection of public and private sector funding but here in Hong Kong we simply don’t have the same level of Government and Commercial support. The process of change in Hong Kong will be more incremental and season 1 will be start of a journey, not the final destination. To some extent clubs and other stakeholders including the media and fans will need to be patient and ‘buy-into’ the longer term vision.
The Licence system itself is an important step forward and although the changes that this will bring about may not be immediately visible, it will have a profound impact in the longer term. In setting up the system the HKFA is following the best practice as determined by the AFC and FIFA and it should allow our best teams to gain automatic entry into Asia’s top club competitions. Equally importantly it will help to ‘clean up’ the sport by requiring clubs to be more transparent about their ownership, governance, management and finances. It should also improve player welfare and therefore encourage more young people to want to play professional football.
I recognize that people will want to see something more tangible and we are doing our best to make some noticeable differences this season including:
· A new Corporate Identity, image, logo etc
· More marketing and promotion
· Enhanced website coverage
· Improved Fantasy game
· Integrity initiatives
o Monitoring of all matches
o Compulsory education for players and coaches
o Referees briefing
· Pitch Improvement Programme in conjunction with LCSD and FIFA
· Further investment in referee training, assessment and communication
· Random drug testing programme
· First steps to establish a player association
· New format for the reserve league to focus on young players
· Additional Cup competitions (Community Cup and League Cup)
Furthermore, we have persuaded the AFC to make us part of their ‘Kick Off’ programme which will mean experts from other countries coming to advise clubs on how to market themselves better and to generate more commercial revenue. We hope the clubs embrace this initiative because we need to work together to make sure the new league is better than its predecessor. And of course it is the club’s responsibility to improve the quality of play on the pitch (as well as the conduct) because that is the main change that people want to see. Significantly better standards of football take time to develop and the new league should be instrumental in doing that by producing a pipeline of young players and creating the revenue to bring in better foreign players. Our more ambitious clubs are investing in players and player development which is great to see. They are the ones that will ultimately benefit.
In time we would like to see the Premier League independent from the HKFA and that would bring further change. In reality this is a few seasons away because it is not a sustainable proposition now. Hopefully the new League will be the catalyst for this independence as more revenue is generated by clubs through ticket sales, commercial sponsorship and eventually broadcasting rights.
The 2014/15 Premier League is a step in the right direction but everyone knows there is still a long way to go. Hopefully when we launch the new league towards the end of August we will have good news about sponsorship. If this is confirmed we will be able to enhance things further by, for example, increasing the prize money. So I am confident that the Premier League will be a success but everyone must remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Mark Sutcliffe July 2014
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