'We have hit the bottom of the valley'
Horrifying. That's how the Hong Kong Football Association has reacted to the official attendance figures released yesterday for the just-concluded season. The figures offer the strongest proof yet that Hong Kong soccer has truly been rocked to its foundations with the biggest-ever losses in both attendance and gate receipts.
In all, the Hong Kong First Division experienced a sharp 37.15 per cent decline in spectator attendance, although gate receipts were hit hardest with a staggering 43.75 per cent drop - both compared with last season.
A total of 153 matches were played last season with 197,690 spectators passing through the turnstiles. Last season, 314,525 spectators turned up for matches. The league itself saw just 55,935 spectators attending 81 games compared with 99,075 in 1999/2000.
Gate receipts for all local matches totalled $19,595,390 compared with $38,838,630 last season. An average of just 1,292 spectators attended games.
The figures have left the beleaguered HKFA with a mountain to climb, particularly as figures have been showing a steady decline during the past five or six years.
'The figures are quite horrifying,' admitted HKFA secretary Martin Lam. 'But the gate receipts figures are misleading because there has been quite a big difference with international exhibition matches compared with last season.
'For instance, last year we saw Manchester United come into town [to a full house at Hong Kong Stadium] but this year we had no exhibition matches. The actual difference between this season and last season was about $4 million.'
Lam offered four major reasons why fans stayed away in droves.
The HKFA experimented for the first time with 'home matches' with Tuen Mun Sports Ground providing a base for several teams. The HKFA explained that fans were not used to the idea.
The HKFA was forced to play four matches on certain match days to counter a two-month break due to Hong Kong's preparation for the World Cup.
The HKFA did not expect the SAR World Cup team to play so poorly, contributing to a significant drop in interest in the local league. Hong Kong finished bottom of their group behind Qatar, Palestine and Malaysia.
International matches being beamed live on TV also had a negative impact on interest in the local game.
Lam will be busy over the next month, trying to come up with a solution to win back the crowds but he admitted he faces an unenviable task. 'I have only been in this job for six months, but the figures are horrifying already, although we have already started plans to improve local football. That is my primary target.
'I need to work with my colleagues and come up with a plan. We're confident of coming up with something because things can't get much worst. We have hit the bottom of the valley.
'We can't sit back and wait to see what happens. We have to be more pro-active so during the next three to four weeks we really need to come out with a concrete proposal to revamp the game here,' said Lam.
While the Carlsberg Cup remained the best attended of all events with an average of 30,000 spectators for the two days, the best-attended game for the domestic league was the Senior Challenge Shield final between Yee Hope and Instant-Dict last December. A crowd of 5,784 spectators saw surprise finalists Yee Hope beat Instant-Dict 1-0 in the final. Gate receipts for the Shield were actually 0.5 per cent more than last year with an income of $484,540.
Surprisingly, Instant-Dict were the most popular team with the best crowd attendance among the eight First Division teams.
The Dickies have overhauled long-time Hong Kong giants South China for the first time. South China's poor season and their failure to win a single trophy contributed to the low attendance figures.