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Observers cast doubt on benefit to local football as EPL clubs draw huge crowds in Hong Kong

Liverpool Triumph in Hong Kong: Photo: David Cheng

Liverpool began their pre-season in style with a morale-boosting win in the EPL Asia Trophy 2017 with a comprehensive 2-1 win over Leicester City in the final last week, whilst Crystal Palace defeated West Bromwich Albion to secure third place.

This time four years ago, the 2013 edition in HK was marked by torrential rain which rendered the pitch unplayable and constant downpour days before kick off saw fans fretting about a similar situation; though HK stadium pitch upgrades allayed these fears. The EPL Asia Trophy was a success for all involved but does hosting these series of games actually have any ‘trickle-down’ benefits for the domestic game in HK?

Jurgen Klopp meets the press at HK Stadium. Photo: David Cheng

At a time when domestic HK matches struggle to attract a couple of thousand of people, let alone 40,000 fans, the fact that up to 80,000 people converged onto HK stadium to watch a friendly tournament between teams of which they have little to no geographical ties in oppressively hot conditions shows that football is still a huge passion for people in HK; though it begs the question of why crowds do not come out in force for their own local teams?

A mixture of fans and experts all gave their insights into why the EPL is so beloved in HK and China and if tournaments like the EPL Asia Trophy actually have any positive benefits for the host cities. The main issues raised include 24/7 media outlets allowing for endless access to overseas leagues, mismanagement in stadium allocation for potential domestic sell-outs, a ‘higher’ standard of play and Hong Kong’s historical ties with the United Kingdom.

Many football observers noted that not a single Hong Kong club team was represented over the two day tournament; a point further raised by Tobias Zuser, a Hong Kong football commentator. Zuser questioned if there was any “trickle down” repercussions of the EPL tournament for local HK  football and also pondered why potential domestic sell-outs (Eastern’s ACL games)  have been played in the much smaller capacity of Mong Kok stadium.

“The impact of such events on local football is certainly much smaller than what organisers and beneficiaries want you to believe. In the end, the objective of the Asia Trophy is a marketing push for the English Premier League – and the fact that no local clubs were involved in the tournament – despite their off-season – makes the detachment quite obvious, meaning there is no strong identification for the host at all. In particular there are two things that should be questioned: First, there is the argument that these events might have some trickle-down effect on the local league, but at the same time Hong Kong’s “game of a decade”, the World Cup qualifier against China, had to be played in a 6,000 seater venue, although a sell out of the Hong Kong Stadium would have been easily possible. Then we had a similar situation for the ACL last year, where ticket sales were massively restricted. If you don’t make use of these rare occasions and guarantee access to a wider football-interested public, how else can you attract people to the local game?

Zuser also tackled the issue of the ‘quality’ of football played in HK.

“The second point is the “quality” argument, with the Hong Kong Premier League being perceived as sub-par. Fans who are primarily interested in quality would most likely dislike a meaningless pre-season tournament with heavy squad rotations. So the negligence for local football is much deeper embedded in society these days and it would take a huge collective effort to change that. The EPL certainly won’t.”

On the flip side, Tim Vine, EPL director of Policy and International Relations, said that the love of the EPL around Asia is why the tournament has become a regular fixture and that EPL sought to build a good relationship with the Chinese Super League and he went onto stress the partnership work that was being done by both two sides.

“I think, in terms of popularity of the EPL across Asia, then Hong Kong and Singapore in particular is a huge hub for us; hence why we have played the Asia Premier league trophy here a number of times. You only have to see the huge support out there for Liverpool and we have seen it in past tournaments too so it is always a pleasure to land in HK and feel the passion that there is for the EPL and the clubs.

Thousands of Hong Kongers flocked to support Liverpool. Photo: David Cheng

“We (EPL) go by a number of different metrics. Obviously the number of people who say they follow us and that is always growing. The Chinese super league have done phenomenally well to get to where they are and rather than see them as a threat, we see them as a good thing. In-fact, we have a co-operation agreement with the Chinese Super League so we have been helping them learn from us in terms of governance and administration; youth development and academies. We have hosted a number of delegations from China. In some ways there is a good balance to be had as Chinese football fans will continue to love the premier league but there is nothing like live football and the chance to go and watch the games so I believe there is room for a popular CSL and a continuing popular English Premier League.”

Nicholas Ng, keen Hong Kong football observer and Liverpool fan said the selection of teams coming to Hong Kong made the tournament very attractive to fans. If the ‘product’ is high quality then there will be interest no matter which team it is or where the team hails from.

“The English Premier league is definitely the most competitive league in the world, if not the best league. This year, unlike previous years, we had four English teams coming to HK, and they are all quality teams. This certainly makes the whole tournament more attractive.”

When the question of why the Hong Kong football scene never sees such crowds then Ng stressed the mentality of the Hong Kong watching public in how they select what football matches to watch and when. In this modern and fast-paced era of endless content choice and social media, football fans have a variety of mediums (TV, Internet, Radio, Cable) in which to “consume” sport on a 24/7 basis and if the overseas leagues are seen as a higher standard then fans will gravitate towards them at the expense of their own leagues.

“I think it’s all down to the HK people’s mindset. You would never see such a large crowd watching domestic football, mainly because they don’t think HK football is up to the standard, and therefore there’s no point supporting. But this attitude is not what is needed to make HK football prosperous again. We need a change in mindset.”

Atom Cheung, RTHK Radio Sports commentator, stressed Hong Kong’s past ties with the United Kingdom was also a reason why crowds flocked to see the games and the reason for people’s affinity with Liverpool; it reminded them of ‘better’ times in Hong Kong when HK was truly booming in all areas of society.

“I think the sell-out isn’t so much due to the appeal of the English Premier League as it is the appeal of Liverpool. The fact that close to 40,000 came out to root for a team that hasn’t won a league title in over two decades tells you a lot about the connection that Hong Kong people have for Liverpool. I also make the connection that Liverpool’s glory days in the 80s coincide with Hong Kong’s glory days through the eighties, when the economy and the arts were thriving.”

Football is universally popular in Hong Kong. Photo: David Cheng

Atom Cheung also mentioned that if the Hong Kong Premier league wanted to attract more fans then the HKPL would have to keep up with the latest technological trends in these tech-savvy times. Cheung also believed that “rebranding” the HK top tier as the “HK Premier league” when the organizers had the chance to build their own unique identity was an own goal.

“I don’t think the success of the Asia Trophy comes at the expense of local football. But I do think the Hong Kong Premier League (ironic that the HKFA opted to use the word ‘Premier’ and giving up the chance to distinguish itself from the English game) can learn a few things about the way the EPL presents itself to fans. It’s easy to follow the EPL because I can get their information easily through a well made website and various apps. We’re a few years into the HKPL era now, and the HKPL still doesn’t have its own website! The existing HKFA website is out-of-sync with its web-savvy audience. Information on the HKPL can only be found by navigating through the charts of the HKFA website.”

Joanne Hawley,  Director of Trade and Investment (British Consulate Hong Kong), also discussed why the EPL has such wide appeal at all areas of society in Hong Kong and it was more to do with the ‘drama’ of the league.

“A recent survey said around 90 percent of Hong Kongers connect with the EPL or have an interest in the EPL so I think there is a huge interest in football in HK but it is not just HK, it is world wide; the interest in the English premier league over domestic leagues is incredible and I think it is partly due to the heritage, the stories you have behind the various clubs and the charismatic managers and the fact that you have twenty fantastic clubs. You also have incredible talent; about fifty percent of the talent comes from elsewhere outside of the UK and this makes for a diverse league.”

When asked if the EPL games in Asia were simply a money making exercise, Hawley said it was more to do with brand-building:

“I am not sure if the EPL makes any money out of this as it very much about brand building, they are obviously looking at how sponsorship works which is part of their package, how it is important to agree with the individual rights for countries in terms of broadcasting; broadcasting rights are their main revenue source.”

Liverpool fans. Photo: David Cheng

Gregory Suen, a keen Liverpool supporter and HK football fan, placed the popularity of the EPL down to the time difference between the UK and Hong Kong which made it easy for fans in Hong Kong (and across Asia) to view the EPL games in the comfort of their own homes on a weekly basis without having to deal with the cost and logistics of watching the domestic game.

“Amongst many other factors that have made EPL successful globally, I think the success of EPL in Hong Kong also has a lot to do with the schedule of EPL games. A vast majority of the games are shown live during the best time in Hong Kong (Saturday and Sunday evenings just after dinner). This cannot be said for some other top level leagues such as the La Liga in Spain. I believe this success has certainly negatively impacted Hong Kong football. The much increased TV coverage after the arrival of paid TV in Hong Kong in the 90s and the advancement of the internet had certainly been correlated to the gradual decline of local football since the mid 90s. The ease of following higher quality football has reduced the interest on local football. The rapid growth of global leagues have also made it basically impossible to import high quality foreign players to Hong Kong, compare to the 70s and 80s when some very high quality players have come play in Hong Kong.”

It is re-assuring that Hong Kong has so many fervent football fans though it shows the hard work that HK football authorities have to do to win back fans to their own domestic teams; even the most fervent of South China fans would have been disillusioned with the team’s self relegation and when teams disband and form out of the blue, which is common in HK then it is very hard to build any personal connection and ‘fans’ are just often player’s families and friends! In light of the huge crowds for the EPL games, many who follow the game in Hong Kong wonder if the crowds will ever come out en masse ever again for a domestic game.

Christopher KL Lau was born in England and grew up in both England and Hong Kong, and has a background in media, education and non-profits. He also is a freelance writer / photographer and has written for a number of magazines, websites and newspapers around the world on many subjects ranging from the arts to travel. Chris is passionate about sports and its place in society and is keen to promote both Hong Kong and Chinese football to a wider audience.

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