'Tis the season to be jolly
After years in the doldrums, those involved in local football can finally look ahead to a new season with optimism.
Falling attendances in the past decade had cast a pall over the sport, but the gloom lifted last season, thanks primarily to South China who poured millions of dollars into their team and were rewarded with three titles - the league, the FA Cup and the Senior Shield.
The Caroliners' more adventurous style of play, clever marketing and promotions also saw their legion of fans return to the stands. After their success in the league, the Caroliners even held a victory parade, with the entire team climbing on board an open-top bus and going from their headquarters in Causeway Bay to Kowloon.
'South China have set a good example, in terms of both lifting the standard of the game and packaging a football club in a way that has appealed to the fans,' said Hong Kong Football Association chairman Brian Leung Hung-tak. 'If more clubs follow South China's lead, I am certain Hong Kong football will be better in the new season.'
One of the most promising aspects of last season was that the slide in overall attendance was halted. One match - the league decider between South China and Kitchee at Mong Kok Stadium - attracted a full house, an incredible 7,500 people. That kind of attendance at a local match hadn't been seen for years.
Overall last season, about 500,000 passed through the turnstiles to watch local games. Leung is hoping to double that figure this season. 'I want to see one million fans coming to the matches this season,' he said. 'I have every reason to believe this will happen. I am very confident.'
Leung, who was elected to the top job in the summer, says more sponsors are now willing to put their money into football. Just a couple of years ago, many believed the professional game in Hong Kong was dying a slow death.
There is no doubt a lot of fans are also willing to dig deep into their pockets if there are good-quality games. Take, for example, the Premier League Asia Trophy at Hong Kong Stadium in the summer. There was a near-capacity crowd on both days of the tournament and the gate receipts were recorded at HK$15 million.
Leung also believes the standard of local football is improving as many teams work hard to close the gap on South China.
'Kitchee, Happy Valley, Sun Hei and even Lanwa are putting in more resources to strengthen their squads,' said Leung. 'It is going to be a very competitive season, although I think South China remain the team to beat.'
The one negative, Leung says, is that local players will find it more difficult to get a game, or even into a squad, as teams fully utilise their quota of fielding seven overseas players.
'There is an urgent need to set up a feeder system so that we can supply quality local players to the teams,' said Leung. 'This is not only for the sake of domestic football but also for the Hong Kong team. We are having discussions with the Hong Kong Jockey Club on establishing the first football academy in Hong Kong. In the meantime, I hope the clubs themselves can invest more in their junior programmes and provide more opportunities to help the youngsters climb up the ranks.'
The number of fans who showed up for last season's league decider 7,500