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(Yonhap Feature) Baseball seeks to expand with fan interest at all-time high
By John Duerden
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Dec. 16 (Yonhap) -- It is an iconic image of Busan, a southeastern port city, and South Korean baseball: a packed Sajik Stadium singing and dancing as they watch the city's favorite sporting team, the Lotte Giants. Starting in the 2013 season, however, the Giants are going to have a local rival as professional top-tier baseball comes to the nearby city of Changwon.

   For over 20 years, there have been eight teams in the league, but that is set to change. The Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) has made the decision to expand. The NC Dinos are the ninth and a tenth is set to follow in 2015.

   Seoul, Incheon, Busan, Gwangju, Daegu and Daejeon have been the foundation on which the present success of the league has been built for two decades. With the 2012 season seeing the total number of spectators pass the 7 million mark for the first time ever as well as being the fourth consecutive record-breaking season in terms of attendance, the KBO wants to strengthen itself.

   Expansion is key, but it has to be handled in the right way, Barney Yoo of the KBO explained.

   "The time is right to expand. Baseball is now at the highest level of popularity, and we have to build on that or it could fade away like it did before," said Yoo, referring to the fact that until the middle part of the previous decade, the game was lagging behind soccer following the success of the national team at the 2002 World Cup.

  
Fans cheer at LG Twins vs. Samsung Lions match in Seoul on Oct. 2, 2012. More than 7 million fans went to watch baseball in 2012, a record single-season attendance. (Yonhap file photo)


South Korean success in winning gold at the 2008 Olympics and coming in second in the 2009 World Baseball Classic helped professional baseball overtake professional soccer. The soccer league, the K-League, expanded to 16 teams in recent years with mixed results and is currently in the process of reducing the numbers in the top tier to 12.

   The KBO claims that the decision to expand was not taken lightly.

   "For new teams, the fans have to want it, the city and community have to want it, and there has to be a sponsor to support it," said Yoo. "That all came together in Changwon. So, the decision was made and now we are looking forward to seeing a new team in the league from 2013. We know that there is still a lot of hard work ahead, but we are confident that we are moving in the right direction."

   The decision was not completely straightforward. While baseball fans in Changwon may be keen to see professional baseball in their home city, there was the issue of the need for a new stadium. A number of local council members publicly voiced their opinions that building a stadium from the public purse was not the best use of council resources.

   Fortunately, online gaming company NC Soft stepped in. The team's sponsors agreed to a deal with Changwon City Council in 2011 to help fund a new stadium. The new team spent 2012 in the Korea Baseball Futures League, a second-tier competition designed to produce players for the professional league, and will make the step up in 2013, a year ahead of the original schedule.

   The league, however, is not done remaking itself. There is criticism about introducing only one new team, making the league odd-numbered. Other baseball leagues usually introduce two teams at the same time to guarantee symmetry in the playing schedule. When the number of teams is quite low, it is considered especially important always to have an even number.

   Adding new teams, however, is not going to be easy, as shown by the case of NC Dinos. Not every rival team was in favor of adding a new franchise. The Lotte Giants voted against the new franchise joining the league in May 2012 when the expansion was formally announced. Other teams had expressed concern but eventually voted in favor by eight votes to one,
"These things are not always simple," said Min. "Some teams were not in favor of the expansion, they thought of themselves only and didn't want to share the benefits of this popularity and success."

  
KBO officials meet on Dec. 11, 2012, to discuss approving 10th professional baseball team. After much delay and threats of protest by players, the KBO agreed to introduce the new team in 2015. (Yonhap file photo)


After much delay, the KBO on Tuesday approved a tenth team that will join the top tier in 2015, but not until it was pushed and shoved. Clubs claimed that more teams would mean a general weakening in the standard of play. The players, eager to see more teams and more opportunities, disagreed. The Korea Professional Baseball Players Association (KPBPA), the players' union, had threatened to boycott off-season activities, such as the Golden Glove Awards and the World Baseball Classic, unless the KBO moved forward with the plan. The threats apparently worked.

   It was expected that the next new team would be hosted in Suwon, just 40 kilometers south of Seoul, and backed by telecom giant KT Corp., which plans to redevelop the baseball stadium in the city. But that has become uncertain with another conglomerate, Booyoung Group, striking a deal on Thursday to launch a professional baseball team with a consortium of four cities of North Jeolla Province.
The key to continued success of the sport is whether the benefits of expansion are soon felt. As well as introducing the professional game to new markets, increasing attendance and viewing rates for television networks and attracting sponsors, the expansion also helps to groom more talent.

   "Demand is so strong from the players, too," said Min. "There are a lot of good players in Korea, and unlike Japan or the United States, there is no semi-professional league. With only eight teams, there is nowhere for them to play. More teams mean more opportunities."

   john.duerden@gmail.com
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