High stadium attendance underlines fans' enthusiasm for soccer
Published: Apr 25, 2023 11:40 PM
Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Photo: Cui Meng/GT

Attendance for the Chinese Super League (CSL) has once again proved that soccer remains the most popular sport in China, as a total of 364,058 spectators attended the first two rounds of matches.

The first round witnessed an average of 23,944 spectators per match, surpassing the average CSL audience attendance figure of 23,300 achieved during the 2019 season, according to the CSL operator. 

The major contributor to the surge could be fans' enthusiasm after the COVID-19 pandemic, as during the previous three seasons they were prevented from watching CSL games in person due to prevention restrictions. 

The lowest attendance in the first round was the Zhejiang FC match at around 5,000. 

There is a reason for the low number. The Hangzhou-based club had to relocate from their home base to neighboring Huzhou city since the club's traditional home venue, the Huanglong Stadium in Hangzhou, has been assigned to the Asian Games that will be held in the city in September. 

Switching home venues, including intra-provincial ones, sometimes means an unpromising future, as was the case for the now-defunct Hebei team, which had been relocated from Shijiazhuang to Qinhuangdao before heading to Langfang in North China's Hebei Province, where it ultimately dissolved. 

Though audience numbers for the first round of the 2023 season hasn't reached the 2019 season's 30,367, some major changes to the league have taken place.

Several high-profile clubs are no longer spending big money to import world-level soccer players from abroad after encountering financial difficulties. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) also introduced a financial fair play policy in 2020 to curb clubs' spending. 

Eight-time CSL champions Guangzhou FC, once a high roller in Chinese soccer as the team boasts several internationals from Italy, Brazil and Argentina, had been demoted to the second-tier China League One since the investment from the parent company Evergrande was no longer consistent. 

The unsustainable investment into foreign powers has strained several other clubs, causing them to cease operations. These include Guangzhou City, Tianjin Tianhai and even 2020 CSL champions Jiangsu FC.

Besides, there remain some unpleasant scenes during matches. One Chengdu fan was caught throwing a plastic cup onto the pitch, which hit the head of player Sun Qinhan, who plays for Chengdu's opponents the Cangzhou Mighty Lions. 

After Chengdu fans stormed the social media account of the athlete to express their sympathy, Sun responded by saying that he hopes the incident will not affect the atmosphere at the stadium and that the venue will continue to inspire more people to love the game. 

Sun's generosity has won him a lot of applause. However, the league should also consider imposing regulations to prevent such incidents from happening again as they could impair the reputation of the league. 

Off the pitch, an anti-graft storm has swept the sport's governing body since November 2022. Seven senior officials from the CFA are under disciplinary probes, putting the sport's operation under scrutiny. 

Plenty of measures have been implemented to safeguard the rational development of domestic soccer, but any significant scandals or incidents will also likely deal a blow to the game's reputation, which ultimately means lower ticket revenue for clubs.  

Some fans had to endure long queues to get tickets, as it happened to Tianjin Jinmen Tigers and Chengdu Rongcheng, after the online rush for tickets caused the ticket-booking system to break down. Soccer fans' passion will not easily dissipate.

But it will not be easy to keep attendance numbers at current levels as the league runs until November. Despite a lack of high-profile players and coaches as a magnet for audiences, a rational CSL might make for a lasting and thriving game for all.