Cash key as HKFA seeks unity for new pro league
Convincing local sides to meet the necessary standards will require subsidies as short-term commercial backing unlikely to materialise
The real action this season will be off the pitch as the Hong Kong Football Association tries to unite clubs to establish a new professional league.
Project Phoenix, the government's blueprint to revolutionise and reinvigorate the game, has called for a Hong Kong Premier League by the 2014-15 season.
This transitional new season, which starts tomorrow, will be a dress rehearsal as the HKFA and the 12 First Division clubs attempt to move from semi-professional to professional.
While excited by the challenge, HKFA chief executive Mark Sutcliffe is also a realist and knows there will be labour pains before the birth of the Hong Kong Premier League.
"This season will require a great deal of work not only on the pitch, but probably more so off the pitch for the governing body and First Division club leaders to take the sport forward," he said.
"The new Hong Kong Premier League will raise the standard of football in Hong Kong with a better product and quality, and it is hoped the league will generate much greater interest for the fans, attract new spectators, encourage youngsters to play the game and ultimately improve the standard of the national team."
The HKFA estimates that nearly HK$20 million will be needed as inducements to get clubs on-side.
The Premier League will require all clubs to get a "Hong Kong Club Licence". This certificate has been prepared in line with the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Club Licence and includes a set of criteria that must be met.
These include management, personnel, facilities, finance and legal criteria. The deadline for clubs to apply for the licence is the end of May 2014. Only clubs who meet all the criteria will be allowed into the Premier League.
"The league will require the HKFA and the clubs to raise the overall standard of governance, management, professionalism and facilities and work needs to start now," said Sutcliffe.
But the HKFA realises it is asking a lot from the clubs, who feel Project Phoenix hasn't benefited them directly. Support from commercial partners hasn't materialised and the HKFA is feeling the financial strain, despite receiving funding of around HK$20 million per year from the Home Affairs Bureau as part of Project Phoenix and another HK$12 million from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department.
"We are conscious that clubs have on-going costs to meet in relation to the current transitional season and we are determined to find some seed funding [to] help the clubs with their preparations," Sutcliffe said.
The majority will need some sort of subsidy and Sutcliffe believes at least HK$1 million will be needed for each club.
"To make a real difference, we will need to find between HK$1 million and HK$2 million per club. The money could come to the HKFA and we would allocate it to the clubs based on strict adherence to certain criteria. For example, most of the money should go to youth development like paying for youth coaches, venue hire, etc," Sutcliffe said.
"It is too early yet to persuade commercial organisations to take the leap of faith necessary to invest in the future of football. The seed money must therefore come from non-commercial sources. Without this injection of funds, the new Premier League will be very difficult to establish," warned Sutcliffe.
This season the number of teams in the top flight has increased from 10 to 12. Teams will also be allowed to have one additional foreign player for this season - to be reduced next season. The home and away format will be retained with each team given a "home" venue.
"We are working with the LCSD to improve the quality of the facilities. In view of the recent decision to retain promotion and relegation, many of the clubs are investing to make sure they stay in the top 11 and therefore have first refusal to apply for one of the 12 Premier League licences," Sutcliffe said.
When the new professional league is up and running, Hong Kong will at last fall into place with the rest of Asia. "At present Hong Kong clubs are excluded from Asia's most prestigious tournament, the AFC Champions League, and the aim is by improving the overall standards of the game locally and implementing a set of criteria that clubs must operate and adhere to we will be able to convince the AFC to grant permission for our clubs to participate," Sutcliffe said.