While Hong Kong football fans were busy trying to buy tickets to the upcoming Premier League Asia Trophy, Hong Kong’s oldest professional football team, South China Athletic Association, decided to leave the city’s top-tier premier league from next season for lack of funding.
On Monday, the Hong Kong Football Association approved South China’s application to leave the Hong Kong Premier League. South China then issued a statement, saying it will play in the First Division and will put more resources into their youth team.
“Hopefully we can build up a strong foundation for future development so that we can one day come back to the Premier League stronger,” the statement said.
A record holder in Hong Kong’s football history, topping the local league 41 times, South China has been losing their golden touch in recent years. They finished in fourth place this year. Still, South China is one of the most popular football teams among local football fans.
South China is no doubt a valuable asset in Hong Kong’s sports industry. Its withdrawal from the top-tier league could pave the way for the team to step down from the stage, following some well-known local teams like Sing Tao, Happy Valley, Instant Dict, Seiko and Bulova.
The problem with Hong Kong professional football is lack of continuity.
In fact, a decade ago, South China was still a front-runner in local and Asian tournaments under the leadership of team boss Steven Lo.
At the time, Lo spent more than HK$10 million to acquire football stars, line up local and international brands to be sponsors and form official fan clubs.
Lo made South China a well-known brand in the market, not just on the football pitch. Such commercial approach successfully helped South China win trophies and more fans returned to the stadium to support the team.
However, after Lo’s exit from the club three years ago, South China’s new boss, Wallace Cheung, assumed the helm but he did not follow the successful model Lo had built. The change in leadership resulted in a change in the whole business model of the team which severely affected its funding, talent and fan loyalty.
In fact, apart from South China, other professional football teams such as Kitchee, Hong Kong Pegasu, Eastern Long Lions and Wofoo Tai Po tried to operate a commercially driven model with funding of over HK$10 million each season.
But their influence still lagged behind South China under Lo’s leadership as all of them failed to market their team an attractive product to Hong Kong people, or at least to football fans.
The government, which provides funding to the Hong Kong Football Association for the Premier League, should review its current policy supporting football development.
The current Premier League has been criticised for focusing too much on the results and ignoring the training of young footballers.
The clubs can only acquire Chinese and foreign players to form their team to fight for the best results. They have no resources left for incubating young footballers. That makes local football teams like a compilation of different players from different places. The self-trained local players lack roots.
Supporters have no affinity to the footballers given most of them were acquired rather locally developed.
The decision by South China to leave the Premier League reflects the tough environment in the football industry and sports as a whole.
Lack of government support could be one of the key reasons for the weakness of local football development.
The government did pay money to support the Premier League as well as some local district football teams but currently only Tai Po, Yuen Long and Southern District have teams in the Premier League. They secured good results last year.
The government should allocate some funding to local teams to market themselves to all Hong Kong people and secure more sponsorships from the private sector.
However, the government may be reluctant to commit to such an investment and risk being criticized for sponsoring commercial activities, but it should take a leading role in promoting the league as a signature sports of Hong Kong, just like the Hong Kong Sevens, the Hong Kong Derby horse racing and other sports.
It’s the government’s role to collaborate with different departments and the commercial sector to rebuild the football industry.
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