Just over a year ago I was lucky enough to interview Satoshi Sato on his plans for what was at the time be the new Cambodian Premier League. Initial plans were to raise $3 million and make the competition better and more marketable.
Over one year on and with season two about to kick-off, what have been the successes and failures of the CPL?
To read our initial story click here.
Why was the Cambodian Premier League formed?
To much fanfare the CPL was announced in January of 2022, with a remit to revolutionize the business aspect of how football was run within the Kingdom.
The CPL was formed as a new league to replace the 13 team Metfone C-League and would convert into a new company (CPL). In a sense modeled in the independence of the English Premier League.
The 13 teams would also be replaced by an 8 team top-tier, as well as a new and improved second division of 12 clubs, by far the biggest league to have existed within the Kingdom.
And the changes did not stop there, with club licensing being introduced, which included strict professional criteria to decide who can play in the CPL, as well as a remit to shake up both sponsorship and increase revenue from TV hosting rights. .
Previously Metfone had been the sole sponsor of the league, paying an estimated $500,000 a year, while BTV had broadcasting rights. They were though as we were to understand not paying for said rights, something the CPL saw as another opportunity to drum up finances.
From a footballing side, he also stated he wanted to see a “team in every province”. So, how did it end up playing out last season?
The 2022 Season – Sponsorship and Broadcasting
From a financial point of view the CPL started the 2022 season without a main sponsor, but instead a number of smaller ones, such as Panasonic. Alas these sponsors tended to pay in goods, such as prizes for players, rather than one big cash payment as is the norm for the majority of leagues around the world. This obviously affected not just CPL finances, but also appliance and prize money.
From a broadcasting side things were similar. BTV who previously invested heavily in the infrastructure to send crew to every game in Cambodia could not agree a deal and for one season there was no broadcaster showing Cambodian games on television.
Matches were streamed online, and clubs were given the right to sell their own games, but the problem was that whilst this works for big clubs like Barcelona, it does not for small Cambodian ones.
The net result of all of this was less prize money and less exposure, meaning it being harder for clubs to find sponsors that it had previously been when games were shown on national television. Alas a vicious circle that would particularly impact smaller clubs.
Footballing wise the league was seen as a success though with new Cambodian national team manager Felix Dalmas telling us that “The quality of football now being played in Cambodia is much better than it was previously and this is largely down to the friction of the CPL”.
Yet while the top richer clubs were indeed doing better, those at the bottom were struggling.
Financial struggles in the second division
As the top of the CPL flourished largely due to the clubs having rich benefactors it was in the second-tier that the numbers did not add up. Clubs were not only given very little time to prepare, but the lack of money provided by the league made its whole conception feel ill prepared at best.
According to Siem Reap based Next Step FC (now Angkor City FC) owner Charlie Pomroy the problems were evident from the start “All we were receiving from the federation was $550 for each home game and $650 for an away game, which with us at times having to travel as far afield as Koh Kong made it impossible to break even”.
He estimated that it cost around $2500 a month merely to exist and not taking into account salaries, with his club finishing the season $12,000 in debt. Something the club have now cleared.
Ironically it was the “team in every province” mantra that partially made things so hard, with the money provided not being enough to cover travel to the 6 provinces represented.
And while $12,000 is not a huge amount of money in footballing terms, it was far from an isolated case, with some clubs in the division losing even more.
These problems were only confounded by the decision of the CPL to move to a split season (August to May), rather than a calendar season (March to November) in one swoop, rather phase it in over three seasons, as other leagues had done..
Eight months no football meant 8 months no income, which led to teams falling like dominoes.
Record amount of clubs go bankrupt
In the three years prior to 2022 only one club, Western Phnom Penh had gone out of business, but by the end of 2022 and into 2023 6 clubs had dropped out of the league, or worse still had folded entirely.
With provincial clubs, such as Tboung Khmum and Banteay Meanchey this had kind of been expected, despite the wish for a “team in each province”, but for others it came as much more of a shock.
Controversially and as part of club licensing EDC FC, who finished top of the league were denied promotion, whilst second placed ISI and 5th placed Prey Veng were both given promotion to an increased 10 team CPL 1.
It is believed that teams such as EDC FC (1st) and National Police (3rd) were denied promotion due to club licensing rules banning state owned enterprises from the top-tier. It should though be noted that the clubs could have transitioned into private companies, as has been seen at Tiffy Army.
Whatever the reason though this led to EDC FC, and Asia Euro United, two long standing teams dropping out of the league. This was followed by Koh Kong FC, dropping back the regionals after also apparently being snubbed for promotion. Essentially why would you bankroll a club that due to licensing can never progress?
This was followed by Soltilo Angkor FC being the last to fold, again citing financial pressure.
You can red about Soltilo folding here.
This meant that in just one season 6 clubs had gone bust, or dropped out and that the league had regressed by one club compared to 2021, the season prior to its launch.
The CPL today
As things stand a 10 team Cambodian Premier League is set to kick off on August 5th, with the richest clubs in the country leading the charge. A TV rights deal has also been agreed with BTV, although if they are paying, or they have simply reverted to the status quo is not known.
What we do know though is that there is still no main sponsor for the league although Vattanac have been touted as a potential main sponsor.
And as for CPL 2? It was just announced that there will be eight teams in the division, four “real clubs”, National Academy and three reserve sides. Again not exactly the desired outcome, but an outcome none the less.
Future plans of the CPL
And as for for the future plans of the CPL? Both Satoshi and the Football Federation of Cambodia (FFC) have stated that the improvements they want are largely two-fold, footballing and financial.
From a football side the CPL wants to raise the domestic game to a level where further participation in Asian Football Confederation (AFC) football competitions could occur. `Currently Cambodia has one team in the AFC Cup, the secondary tournament o the AFC, akin to the Europa League in Europe. The goal is to challenge to a level where Cambodian teams are invited to the AFC Champions League, not only the premier competition, but also the best paying. The theory also being that as well as the new riches it would bring, it would also help with the development of the national side.
From a financial point of view the aim is to improve the overall product that is Cambodian football, which in turn will lead to increased incomes and investment in not just grassroots, but also women’s football.
In 2023-24 the CPL are set to launch not only a national women’s league, but also a national Under 18’s league with the remit of giving playing time to the potential star of the future. These things though of course cost money.
How much does it cost to run a Cambodian football club?
So, while football standards have improved, it is generally accepted that the financial side still needs a lot of help. Some owners have even come out and stated that clubs needs tax breaks, as well as questioning the sustainability of Cambodian football.
In 2021 top clubs ran on budgets of around $500,000 a year, a number that has increased steadily as rich owners have invested to make their teams successful. And while this is common in many footballing nations, in Cambodia at least the potential income is dwarfed by the guaranteed outgoings.
Big clubs can charge into the hundreds of thousands for sponsorships, but with very little being brought in from gate receipts and none from broadcasting running a football club is a labour of love rather than a profit maker.
And this perhaps is where some of the biggest mistakes with the league have been made. Yes it is good to look at the top leagues in the world and see how things are done there, but the CPL is not the English Premier League (EPL) and things need to be tailored to local needs.
So, has the Cambodian Premier League been a success? From a footballing sense it certainly has, but financially? Not as of yet anyway. .
Things though are at least looking good, with the CPL slowly but surely bringing in sponsors and the record attendance at the Super Cup proving that innovation can lead to success. Could this be the year that Cambodian football becomes finically viable? It just might be.
This article is adapted from BPVE, (https://bpve.com/) reported and edited from the great team – Cambodia Sports Review. (https://www.cambodiasportsreview.com/)
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