Hong Kong FA Boss Sees Progress With $2.5B Stadium, Inaugural Premier League On Tap
Hong Kong FA CEO Mark Sutcliffe has a lot to be optimistic about. With the implementation of the new Hong Kong Premier League in September, a new training facility and $2.5B stadium in the works, these are exciting times. Sutcliffe, who took over the HKFA in '12, told SBD Global the new HKPL will implement a new license system, much like that used in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League, to ensure strict governance and management. “Clubs are going to have to apply and go through a rigorous assessment. They’re going to have to be very clear and specific about who owns the club, any outsourcing arrangements, and they’re going to have to submit audited accounts for us to pour over and make sure that they are legitimate,” Sutcliffe said. With the new license system’s regulation of foreign players, coaching qualifications and youth development, Sutcliffe also expects to see improvements in the quality on the pitch. “It’s about professionalizing every aspect of the club. It’s going to be much more transparent than historically,” Sutcliffe said.
PROJECT PHOENIX: The HKFA is currently in discussions to extend its three-year government-funded program, Project Phoenix, which expires in October. Sutcliffe said, “In terms of whether [Project Phoenix] has been successful or not, there were 33 recommendations, 22 of them have been implemented fully.” Sutcliffe said that among the program’s ongoing successes has been the increase in qualified coaches and referees, the U16 team’s first qualification in the regional finals and an improvement in the senior team’s FIFA ranking. Despite these results, Sutcliffe said that not every area of the project has progressed as hoped. The HKFA is still waiting on its football training center, a facility Sutcliffe said the league “definitely” needs. “At the moment, our teams have no dedicated training facilities, so they move around from venue to venue for their training programs, which is not ideal.” A former landfill, large enough to accommodate 10 pitches, has been earmarked by the government for 10 years, but construction has yet to begin. Sutcliffe: “Generally speaking I would say [Project Phoenix] is a success. Time will tell whether our partners think so and whether we get the additional funding we need.”
REBUILDING JOB: With this year marking the HKFA’s centenary, Sutcliffe said that interest in the First Division league has decreased since its peak in the '80s. “The domestic league would fill the stadium, which is 30-40 thousand on a regular basis,” Sutcliffe said. He added that the reason for the decline stemmed from the departure of foreign players, and most recently, the rise of football on TV. With the English Premier League and other European leagues being screened in Hong Kong, the demand for live football began to decline. “If people want to watch some good quality football, they can do it from the comfort of their own living room rather than going out to watch it live in Hong Kong,” Sutcliffe said. While the professional game has weakened, interest in the sport has remained strong. Sutcliffe: “In terms of participation, [football] is the most popular sport in Hong Kong. Over 300,000 people play it on a weekly basis.”
LOOKING FORWARD: With Hong Kong’s proximity to mainland China, Sutcliffe said the option of joining the Chinese Super League has been discussed, but complications have hampered further progress. “We’re looking at it, but I think it’s more realistic for us to play in one of their cup competitions than in one of their leagues at the moment,” Sutcliffe said. Joining would require clubs to enter in at a lower division and qualify for the CSL though promotion, a process that could take four to five years, with no guarantee of advancing. Sutcliffe: “But it’s something that we shouldn’t lose sight of because it will certainly generate more interest and a bigger crowd if there was a Hong Kong team playing against a team from Shanghai or Beijing or wherever.”
NEW STADIUM: Sutcliffe hopes to see bigger crowds materialize with the completion of the new Kai Tak Stadium. Set to be completed in ‘20, the $2.5B project will house 50,000 and feature a retractable roof. Sutcliffe hopes that the Hong Kong government’s recent decision to foot the bill for the project might move the completion forward to ‘19. “We need that project,” Sutcliffe said. “At the moment lots of big European clubs, both national teams and club teams want to go to Hong Kong. It’s a gateway to China. It’s a great commercial opportunity for them.” Sutcliffe said that the need for a larger stadium was evident during ManU’s 2013 Asia Tour when tickets to its match against local side Kitchee at Hong Kong Stadium sold out in four hours. “We need a bigger stadium, otherwise Hong Kong could lose ground to places like Singapore, which is about to open a brand new sports hub,” Sutcliffe said. “The training center project and the Kai Tak project are critical for the future of football in Hong Kong.”