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March 20, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

Korea Catches Baseball Fever

by Daniel Kim

‚ÄčBelieve it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Daniel Kim is a baseball columnist for Daum Media and a lifelong New York Mets fan. He has served in various roles for major-league organizations, including the Mets and Cincinnati Reds. He’s currently based in Seoul.

SEOUL, Korea—The stadium is packed, and the scalpers are selling tickets for five times their original value. Seoul is several thousand miles away from New York City, but the scene at Jamsil stadium on a baseball game night is very similar to that of 161st street in the Bronx. Yes, it’s crowded, and the traffic is horrible, but people are (mostly) having a good time.

Baseball may be the national pastime in the U.S., but Korean fans are not too far behind when it comes to passion and love for the game. In a country known for the 38th parallel and for its ability to deliver cool LED TVs to Best Buys all over America, baseball is becoming an increasingly integral part of many people’s lives.

KBO (Korea Baseball Organization), which organizes the highest professional baseball league here in Korea, is about to begin its 31st season, and the league is finally branding itself as the most popular professional sport in the country. In a nation of a little over 50 million people, the KBO’s total attendance for regular season games in 2011 stood at 6.8 million.

“I loved pitching in Korea,” says C.J. Nitkowski, a former first-round draft pick whose major-league stops included the New York Yankees and the Mets. “The fans really get into it for the entire duration of the game. In the States, fans tend to wait for something to happen, but in Korea, fans get into it from the first pitch, and their consistency is maintained throughout the game.”

Sun Yang Park, a senior editor at leading online sports media entity OSEN, thinks this is only the start and says that industry experts expect an increase in total attendance for the upcoming season. “With the return of national heroes Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim, we are anticipating an even bigger year for the KBO in 2012,” says Park, whose organization dispatches eight full-time writers to all KBO games.

According to television executives, the game’s soaring popularity is even changing the landscape of Korean television. “Our network depends on baseball games for revenue, and it really is the lifeline for us,” said a local station executive who asked not to be identified. The same executive went on to confirm that all advertising slots for the first half of the season have been sold out. For the first time in 30 years, KBO is fielding offers for TV rights and making money from the ensuing deals. That is a drastic change from the league’s earlier years, when television stations had free access to all games.

According to KBO, five national cable networks are scheduled to broadcast all KBO games in the upcoming season, including the postseason. In addition to the TV broadcasts, the games can be watched online through a streaming service provided by the nation’s top search portal, Naver.

Wherever you look in Korea, baseball fever is a national disease, and it’s burning hot. Fans are opening up not only their hearts, but their wallets as well.

There were lean years for KBO and for the league. In 2002, Korea co-hosted the World Cup soccer tournament, and baseball became an afterthought. People flocked to soccer stadiums, and at home, they tuned their televisions to channels showing European soccer games.

However, help was on the way, and it came from Bud Selig’s office. The turning point came in 2006, when Major League Baseball hosted the inaugural World Baseball Classic. “When the Korean national team played well in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, it opened people’s eyes, and the gold medal in the Beijing Olympics put the icing on the cake,” said Sun Yang Park. Immediately after the Olympic games, its players once again became stars, and the fans started returning to the stadiums. “I think the most important fact is that players played well both domestically and internationally. People actually saw a good product on the field,” continued Park.

“It’s really an emerging market in terms of talent,” Nitkowski said. “A good amount of players can hold a roster spot in the major leagues if given a chance… they play aggressively and edgily.”

The league will be expanding in the 2013 season, as the NC Dinos are scheduled to join the league. There are also talks about adding another expansion team, and several cities and provinces are now competing to be next baseball town.

Despite the league’s soaring popularity, much work remains to be done. Facilities and stadiums are outdated and are breaking down, so KBO and its teams must figure out a way to build new ones. The league also must educate and police its players better, as two young promising players were recently involved in match-fixing scandal.  

Despite the growing pains, expect the game to continue to expand in Korea in the coming years.

Top Teams

Lotte Busan Giants
Busan is the second-largest city in Korea, and it’s the home of the Lotte Giants. Despite not winning a championship since 1992, the Giants are KBO’s most popular team. This past season, their regular-season attendance was a league-high 1.36 million. Considering that the entire city population is only about 3.6 million, that makes the Giants quite a big draw. Heon-Tak Lee, a former Bostonian and lifelong Giants fan, says the intensity at Sajik Stadium is very similar to that of Fenway. “I lived in Boston when the Red Sox broke the curse, and the atmosphere at Lotte Giants games is very similar to the one I experienced at Fenway. The fans are into it, and the entire city feeds off the Giants.” The team has made it to the postseason four years in a row, but its prospects in 2012 look dubious, as MVP Lee Dae-Ho signed a free agent deal with the Orix Buffaloes of NPB.

SK Wyverns
The Wyverns have won three of the last five championships. Although they are not considered a big market team, they do play in Munhak Stadium, which is considered a top baseball facility in Korea. They are being managed by one-time Chicago White Sox bullpen coach/catcher Man Soo Lee.

Doosan Bears
As one of the six original franchises, the Bears have been a model organization on and off the field. They boast one of the top minor-league systems and are known to have the best development program in the league. Former major leaguers Dustin Nippert, Scott Proctor, and Sun-Woo Kim are some of the top players on the team.

Samsung Lions
With strong financial backing from their mother company, the Lions have one of the KBO’s top teams. They may not have won many titles, but they seem to contend every year. They’re coming off a championship season and will look to repeat in 2012. The Lions’ top player is Seung-Hwan Oh, who is considered the Korean version of Mariano Rivera. Mitch Talbot, former Indian and one-time 10-game winner, will be pitching for the Lions in 2012.

Kia Tigers
Maybe the most storied franchise in KBO, the Tigers dominated the ’80s and ’90s and have 10 championship trophies to prove it. Former big leaguers Horacio Ramirez and Jae Weong Seo are on the team. 

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