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(Yonhap Feature) South Korean baseball goes global

2018/05/30 09:00

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By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, May 30 (Yonhap) -- The sport of baseball itself isn't unique to Korea -- it's called America's pastime, after all -- but there are elements to how the game is played here that can make the Korean brand of baseball a unique product.

And it's a product that is going global these days.

Last Thursday, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) announced a one-year rights deal with the international sports agency MP & Silva to have its regular season games televised in Taiwan.

The financial terms weren't disclosed, but the KBO said the amount of money isn't as important as having its games on television in a foreign country for the first time.

In this file photo from April 5, 2018, Wang Wei-chung of the NC Dinos throws a pitch against the Samsung Lions in a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Wang is the first Taiwanese player in the KBO, and the league announced on May 24, 2018, that one regular season game each day will be televised on Taiwanese channel Sportcast for the rest of the season. (Yonhap) In this file photo from April 5, 2018, Wang Wei-chung of the NC Dinos throws a pitch against the Samsung Lions in a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) regular season game at Masan Stadium in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul. Wang is the first Taiwanese player in the KBO, and the league announced on May 24, 2018, that one regular season game each day will be televised on Taiwanese channel Sportcast for the rest of the season. (Yonhap)

The very first game to be aired on the Taiwanese station Sportcast also happened to feature the first Taiwanese player in the KBO, NC Dinos starter Wang Wei-chung.

Wang, who missed a few days earlier this month with some discomfort in his shoulder and elbow, is second in the KBO with a 2.57 ERA and has a 4-2 record in nine starts through Tuesday's action. And Wang's early success prompted the KBO to look toward the Taiwanese market for potential opportunities to expand its international foothold.

The 26-year-old former Milwaukee Brewers prospect has been a boon for tourism in the Dinos' home city of Changwon, some 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul, so much that Changwon named Wang its goodwill ambassador of tourism in late April. A local travel agency has also been trying to put together a special package for Taiwanese visitors with a baseball theme.

Ryu Dae-hwan, CEO of the Korea Baseball Organization Properties (KBOP), KBO's marketing wing, said Wang's arrival allowed the KBO to make its first serious foray into a global market and to showcase the most popular professional sports competition in South Korea.

"There is only so much more we can do in the Korean market, and when we considered international markets, Asia was a logical choice for us," Ryu said. "And now that we have a Taiwanese player, it gave us an opportunity to test international waters there (in Taiwan)."

  

In this file photo from April 15, 2018, fans attend a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game between the home team LG Twins and the KT Wiz at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from April 15, 2018, fans attend a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game between the home team LG Twins and the KT Wiz at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The KBO's first attempt to establish an international presence came in March 2016, when it signed cooperative agreements with the Chinese Baseball Association (CBAA) and the Chinese Baseball League (CBL). The CBAA is the Chinese national baseball governing body, while the CBL handles commercial and marketing operations for the CBAA.

And yet more than two years later, hardly anything has come out of that deal. Ryu said the general lack of interest in baseball in China has kept the KBO from taking roots there, and the South Korean league has now turned its eyes toward Taiwan, where the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL), the country's top-tier competition, has been around since 1989.

Baseball in Taiwan is said to have been influenced by the Japanese style -- a small ball variety, with batters seeking to move runners over and "manufacture" runs by laying down sacrifice bunts or slapping the ball the other way -- and Ryu said the KBO brand of baseball will have something entirely different to offer to the Taiwanese viewers.

"I think our baseball is closer to the American style than the Japanese style, in that the players are more aggressive at the plate," the KBOP chief said. "In terms of the fans' cheering in the stands, I think the atmosphere at KBO games is more dynamic (than in Taiwan)."

   Though not directly related to the KBO, there was another first for South Korean baseball last week as well. The Australian Baseball League (ABL) announced on May 21 that a team made up entirely of South Korean players will start playing Down Under in the 2018-2019 season.

The yet-to-be-named all-Korean team will be the seventh club in the ABL, with the league also hoping to expand to New Zealand to have an even number of clubs for the new season. Winter Ball Korea, a South Korean sports management firm that will oversee the Korean team's operations, said it is trying to get a South Korean cable station and a portal site to televise ABL games live here.

The ABL season goes from November to February the following year, including the postseason.

Kim Kyeong-eon, a former outfielder for the KBO club Hanwha Eagles, is the first player to commit to the new ABL team. Kim was released by the Eagles after last season and had been looking for a new opportunity in the ABL when the new Korean team came calling.

"It's been frustrating just to be training and not playing in games," he said. "I can't wait for the ABL season to start (in November)."

  

In this file photo from May 21, 2018, Cam Vale (L), CEO of the Australian Baseball League, and Kim Hyun-soo, head of Winter Ball Korea, pose with a contract for the founding of an all-South Korean club in the ABL starting in the 2018-2019 season in a ceremony in Seoul. (Yonhap) In this file photo from May 21, 2018, Cam Vale (L), CEO of the Australian Baseball League, and Kim Hyun-soo, head of Winter Ball Korea, pose with a contract for the founding of an all-South Korean club in the ABL starting in the 2018-2019 season in a ceremony in Seoul. (Yonhap)

And the new ABL team will look to acquire other KBO castoffs -- those released by teams here or forced into retirement by their former teams' youth movements. There will be also open tryouts in September for amateurs who don't get selected at the KBO rookie draft.

When all is said and done, the team will likely be a motley crew of players with major chips on their shoulders. Kim, for one, said he wants to prove that he still has what it takes to play in the KBO.

He played 16 seasons in the KBO and has a career batting average of .271 with 55 homers and 393 RBIs in 1,183 games. He's three years removed from his most productive season in 2015, in which he set career highs with a .337 batting average, 16 home runs, 78 RBIs and 21 doubles. At 35, Kim probably won't play at an All-Star level even if he does return to the KBO, but he can still be a useful bat to bring off the bench.

"I would love to play at least one more season (in South Korea)," Kim said. "I hope I can have a good season in Australia and draw interest from teams here."

   South Korea boasts a longer baseball history than Australia, and the KBO is considered a superior competition to the ABL. And players unwanted by the KBO clubs may still be competitive in the ABL.

In this file photo from June 16, 2017, Kim Kyeong-eon of the Hanwha Eagles (R) celebrates his three-run homer against the KT Wiz with teammate Song Kwang-min (L) in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. Kim is the first player to commit to a new all-Korean team to compete in the Australian Baseball League starting in the 2018-2019 season. (Yonhap) In this file photo from June 16, 2017, Kim Kyeong-eon of the Hanwha Eagles (R) celebrates his three-run homer against the KT Wiz with teammate Song Kwang-min (L) in a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, 45 kilometers south of Seoul. Kim is the first player to commit to a new all-Korean team to compete in the Australian Baseball League starting in the 2018-2019 season. (Yonhap)

Cam Vale, CEO of the ABL, said South Korea's "strong baseball tradition and history" was a key motivating factor behind the ABL's decision to add an all-Korean team.

"The passion that Korea has for baseball can only benefit Australian baseball," Vale said. "It's rare to be able to have such a big country so strong in this sport come into this competition."

   The ABL chief also said competing against the Korean team won't just present Korean talent to the Australian audience for the first time; it will also validate the quality of the ABL.

"What I think it can really do in Australia is showcase how big the sport is in Korea and therefore how important our league is in Australia that we can attract such a quality team in a quality country," Vale said. "The big reach that this team will have, being broadcast into Korea, is a game changer in Australian sports."

   The KBO should have little trouble generating interest in Taiwan because baseball is already popular there and the two countries have had a long rivalry in the sport. But in Australia, in Vale's words, baseball "sits with another dozen sports in the second-tier space" behind the likes of Australian rules football and cricket.

But having an international presence with the new Korean club will give the ABL "uniqueness" not found in other Australian sports, Vale said.

"This gives us a great chance. Not many leagues have the international profile we're trying to create," he said. "We're hoping to create our own unique space in the Australian landscape. Our international reach, by doing something like this, is significantly different to any other Australian sport."

   jeeho@yna.co.kr

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