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(Yonhap Feature) After 30 years, Korea's professional soccer seeks to reinvent itself
By John Duerden
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Feb. 14 (Yonhap) -- For most, a 30th birthday is a time to think about settling down, starting a family and planning for the future. In short, it is a time to grow up. Yet for professional football in South Korea, the start of its fourth decade is a time for a new and radical change.

   On the field, there seems to be little wrong with the game. The league produces plenty of good talent who then go on to play in top competitions such as England, Germany and France. In Asia, it is easily the most successful in club competitions with 10 continental championships, five more than its nearest rival. South Korean teams have won three out of the last four titles.

   But off the field, there have been problems with a massive match-fixing scandal in 2011 that saw almost 60 players and coaches, past and present, indicted on rigging the results of professional games as well as falling attendances at stadiums around the country. Such events prompted authorities to act and change has been in the air ever since.

Court officials carry in documents for the opening trial on football match-fixing at a local cout on July 28, 2011. Nearly 60 players and coaches were indicted on charges of match rigging. (Yonhap file photo)

The league quickly decided to restructure its league system to make it more professional. In 2011, it was decided to cut the number of teams in the top division from 16 to 12 over the course of 2012 to 2014. A fact-finding team traveled to Scotland to study how, in 2001, the Scottish Premier League (SPL) had introduced a "split system." After two-thirds of the season, the league was divided into two and the two groups continued in their own "mini-leagues."

   The CEO of the Scottish Premier League Neil Doncaster met with the delegation to talk about how the system worked in Scotland. "We didn't advise -- we simply pointed out the benefits of our system and discussed possible alternatives and their benefits and drawbacks," said Doncaster.

   The split system is designed to solve the problem that smaller leagues often face, Doncaster explained. With 12 teams playing each other only twice, the season is far too short.

   "The key benefit of the split for the SPL is to accommodate an acceptable number of games for the 12-team league -- that is the reason it was first used. The alternative would be 22 games which was not enough games but play four times and 44 games were too many, play three times and 33 games was unbalanced. The system is understood and liked by some more than others. But it certainly guarantees tight finishes, year after year."

   As well as the split, which seemed to be a mixed success in its first season in 2012, there is now a new name and logo. The top tier of South Korean football, which had gone by the name of the K-League for three decades, is now known as the "K League Classic." The second tier is now, the "K League."

   The rebranding is a big step, according to Bob Lenarduzzi, CEO of one of the most successful new franchises in North America. The Vancouver Whitecaps FC play in the increasingly popular Major League Soccer (MLS) competition. From its inception in the mid-90s, the league survived some early struggles to become an integral part of the sports scene in a competitive market.

   "This kind of rebranding is important, and is similar to when Whitecaps FC made the transition from the United Soccer League to MLS," said Lenarduzzi. "We went from one level to the other, and there is no question that the MLS brand brought greater acceptance and more hype in our market."

   Marcus Luer is CEO of Total Sports Asia, a leading sports marketing agency. He is unconvinced by the new name but admits that the real success of the rebranding will be seen in the years to come.

New logo for top-tier football league renamed as "K League Classic" (Yonhap file photo)

"In general, branding is an art and a science at the same time. You run studies and focus groups on these types of rebranding campaigns to see how your core fans react to it and what message they hear when you use the new words.

   "Calling anything 'Classic' in my mind does not equate to 'the future' of the sport, the new generation of stars. It is an unusual word in football and more commonly used in golf or tennis and even then it normally refers to the grand masters of that sport and not the new exciting young players of the future. Maybe it is different in Korean."

   Lenarduzzi's advice for South Korean football authorities was simple: "Stay the course. Like in North America, it has been 17 years since MLS started, and it has been slow growth. We have sports such as hockey, (American) football, and basketball in many MLS markets that dominate the sports scene. We have had to find our place in the North American hierarchy, and in Korea, they need to do the same."

   The former Canadian international also admitted that the K League's introduction of promotion and relegation has been closely followed by industry experts in the United States and Canada. The MLS is one of the very few major leagues not to have adopted the up/down system. "It's a constant topic that comes up. Given the level of investment in MLS compared to the level below it would be impossible to move to a promotion/relegation model."

   That was once thought to be the case in South Korea but there is change in the air. Fans, players, clubs and media are still adapting. All hope that when it settles down, a vibrant football scene will be the result.