KT has signed on to launch the 10th club in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) in the city of Suwon, just south of Seoul, with an eye on joining the top league by 2015.
Lee Suk-chae, the chairman of KT, said the company will try to revitalize the local economy and incorporate its latest information and communications technologies into the sport to create new content for fans.
"Baseball has truly become a national pastime," Lee said. "We've decided to sponsor the 10th club, thanks to great support from the city of Suwon and the province of Gyeonggi."
From left: Kim Moon-soo, governor of Gyeonggi Province; Lee Suk-chae, chairman of KT Corp.,; and Yeom Tae-young, mayor of Suwon; pose on Nov. 6, 2012, with an agreement to launch a 10th professional baseball club in Suwon. (Yonhap)
The KBO, which started in 1982, currently has eight teams, all of which are owned and operated by private firms. Owners include major conglomerates, such as Samsung, SK and LG.
The league broke the single-season attendance records for the fourth consecutive season this year, and has seen its attendance figures rise in each of the past six seasons. It will welcome in a ninth club, called the NC Dinos, for the 2013 season.
The Dinos, owned by game company NC, will be based in Changwon, South Gyeongsang Province, about 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul.
Since the expansion to nine teams was finalized in March of this year, there have been calls for a 10th club to give the KBO an even number of teams.
Proponents of another expansion have said having 10 clubs would reduce scheduling headaches and would further promote baseball in different corners of the country as the game's popularity is at an all-time high.
Suwon had been competing with a consortium of four cities and towns in North Jeolla Province -- Jeonju, Gunsan, Iksan and Wanju -- since last year to host the 10th team. With the North Jeolla cities unable to partner with a corporate sponsor, Suwon appears to have taken the lead in the race.
Both Suwon and North Jeolla have been home to now-defunct KBO teams: the Hyundai Unicorns and the Ssangbangwool Raiders, respectively.
When the Unicorns folded under financial hardships in 2007, KT was seen as a likely candidate to step in as a new corporate sponsor. The company pulled out of the plan, however, and a local tobacco firm named Woori Tobacco came in to found the Heroes. They have since become the Nexen Heroes, under the sponsorship of tire company Nexen.
The expansion idea was met with opposition earlier this year by at least three of the existing KBO clubs, who have argued that further expansion, coupled with a relatively shallow talent pool in Korea, would only water down the level of competition in the top baseball league.
The debate of the viability of expansion divided the baseball community this past summer. The KBO players' association threatened to boycott the All-Star Game on July 21 if the league didn't approve the expansion plan. Groups representing retired players and managers also called on the KBO and team executives to give the green light to expansion plans.
The KBO board of directors, which wanted to shelve expansion talks indefinitely in June, relented a month later and said the commissioner's office would handle all expansion-related issues.
Yang Hae-young, KBO's secretary general, said the league will discuss the possible expansion at a board meeting in December. The KBO holds a regular board meeting every second Tuesday of the month, and the next session is set for next Tuesday.
Yang said, however, that the board, made up of team presidents, will need more time to study KT's proposal and added the more earnest review of the expansion plan will be held next month.
Yang also said the KBO will wait for another corporate sponsor to emerge in North Jeolla Province.
"North Jeolla Province also hopes to host a new club, and we'll wait and see if a company steps in to sponsor it," the official said. "The approval on the expansion itself could come in early December, but which city and company will have that new club will likely be decided near the end of the year."
Under the league rule, a potential corporate sponsor of an expansion team must meet certain fiscal criteria and must dole out league entry fees and contribute to the KBO's baseball development fund.
Under their partnership with KT, Gyeonggi Province and Suwon agreed to renovate the 14,465-seat Suwon Stadium to turn it into a 25,000-seat stadium, and lease the ballpark to KT for 25 years. The telecom company will have the naming right to the stadium and will also be guaranteed revenues from advertising and concessions.
The expansion proposal is subject to approval by at least two-thirds of KBO club owners.
Earlier this week, KT, the country's No. 2 mobile carrier and its top fixed-line operator, reported a nearly 46-percent surge in its third-quarter earnings.