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Fan interest propels expansion

It is an iconic image of Busan and South Korean baseball: A packed Sajik Stadium singing and dancing as they watch the city’s favorite sports 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 more than 20 years, there have been eight teams in the league, but that is set to change. The Korea Baseball Organization has made the decision to expand. The NC Dinos are the ninth and a 10th 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.

South Korea’s 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 K-League expanded to 16 teams in recent years with mixed results and is currently in the process of reducing the number in the top tier to 12.

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 the NC Dinos. Not every rival team was in favor of adding a new franchise.

The Lotte Giants voted against the new franchise when the expansion was formally announced. Other teams had expressed concerns but eventually voted in favor by eight votes to one.

After much delay, the KBO on Tuesday approved a 10th 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 had threatened to boycott offseason 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. (Yonhap News)
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