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[Weekender] Korean baseball’s big hit

Baseball boom shows no sign of abating, diversifying fan base

When South Korea’s professional baseball league first began in 1982, it started small with a total season attendance of 1.4 million. Now, things have changed. A record number of 8 million fans flocked to stadiums across the nation this season alone, with tickets for many games selling out almost instantly.

“There’s nothing like going to the ballpark,” said Kim Bo-gyung, a 25-year-old fan who was watching the LG Twins play at Jamsil Stadium on Tuesday. “I’m singing, shouting and dancing the stress out of me.”

The LG Twins fans attended at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul to watch the game. (Yonhap)
The LG Twins fans attended at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul to watch the game. (Yonhap)

It was the end of the ninth and the home team was ahead one-up. At Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, fans synchronized hand moves and sang slogans together. On the other side, the crowd crossed their balloon clappers on cue, following the cheering squad.

“We chant in unison whenever the Twins player steps to the plate. The chants are easy to follow. Just have to shout out loud ‘LG, the unbeatable. For victory, all together,’ jumping up and down,” Kim explained. “The sense of unity and togetherness that comes with it is just amazing -- win or lose.” 

Spectators chant slogans with the cheering squad. (Yonhap)
Spectators chant slogans with the cheering squad. (Yonhap)

There are victims, too, amid the soaring popularity of Korean baseball -- those who cannot get tickets. Kim Sung-woo, a 27-year-old who works in the distribution industry, was watching the match on television with his co-workers at a Korean barbecue restaurant in downtown Seoul. Occasional screaming and yelling accompanied the meal, just like at the stadium, only quieter. 

“It’s getting harder to find extra tickets,” Kim said, adjusting the grill on his table. “But I have to watch this one. It’s so important.”

The wild-card game Tuesday was between the fourth and the fifth seeds of the baseball league. The LG Twins, who finished fourth in the 10-team league, took down the Kia Tigers 1-0, securing a spot for the next playoff round.

This year’s regular baseball season has ended, but the playoffs kicked off Thursday and have added more fuel to the already heated excitement.

The sport has already broken the highest attendance record of the league’s 35-year history this year, according to the Korea Baseball Organization, the governing body of the league. With games still remaining, the number of spectators has already surpassed 8 million, up from 7 million for all of last year.

Female fans are driving the boom for the sport. They made up 43 percent of all ticket buyers last year, according to ticketing website Ticketlink.

“It was during the dramatic, action-packed 2008 Beijing Olympic Games that the Korean baseball league started to lift its popularity among female fans,” said Park Sung-bae, a professor at the Sports Business Center at Hanyang University in Seoul. “Public interest continued to growth after the World Baseball Classic in 2009 and the Premier 12 baseball tournament last year where Korea became the champion. People began to feel pride, fans or not.”

Ballparks’ culinary delights, ranging from barbecue to pig’s feet, help draw more fans and enhance the in-stadium experience that goes well beyond the game itself.

The pro baseball league is estimated to create an economic impact of more than 1 trillion won ($880 million) in terms of growth in jobs and businesses, according to a recently published report by the Korea Sports Promotion Foundation.

The economic impact of baseball is bigger than three other major sports -- soccer, basketball and volleyball -- all combined, the report showed.

The statistical figures of pro baseball look impressive, but one should treat them with caution, said professor Park.

“What is more important than the total attendance is the average number of people going to the stadiums per game,” Park said. “The 8 million spectators are, in a sense, a result of the newly joined KT Wiz last year, adding more games to the previous nine-club league.”

Some clubs indeed see the average attendance per game declining, even though the total figure is going up.

“It’s fair to say the baseball has become a national pastime here, but it can grow much larger than it currently is,” Park said.

By Bak Se-hwan  (