File photo (Yonhap)
As all ballparks across the nation closed again because of a recent surge in coronavirus cases, the goal now for the South Korean baseball league is to complete the season without disruption, a senior official said Thursday.
Ryu Dae-hwan, secretary general of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), also acknowledged that a "Plan B" is in place whereby the 144-game regular season will be shortened in case of an outbreak in the league.
The season opened May 5, instead of March 28 as originally scheduled, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The KBO stuck to the full, 144-game season despite a much tighter window, with an eye on crowning the Korean Series champion by the end of November.
Fans weren't allowed to attend KBO games in the early going because of lingering infection concerns. Stadium gates finally opened July 26, but they have all been shut this week with the nation dogged by another wave of infections. There's no telling when they will open again.
"We've been walking a tightrope to make it this far, and we've run into another major obstacle," Ryu said. "I think we shouldn't expect to have fans back in the seats for quite some time. Our main objective now is to finish the regular season and the postseason as safely as possible."
Ryu said the league and team officials discussed contingency plans well before Opening Day.
"We have already reviewed possibilities of cutting the season to 135 games or to 126 games per team," he said. "When push comes to shove, we'll sit down with team executives to make the final call."
Without any gate revenue in the first 2 1/2 months of the season, KBO clubs have been plagued by serious financial issues. Reopening stadiums in late July was a welcome relief, though teams could only operate them at 10 percent of full capacity due to safety concerns.
The government then announced during the first week of August that the cap will be raised to 30 percent. KBO teams offered to stay around 25 percent to continue to adhere to safety protocols.
"At 10 percent of the capacity crowd, teams would still be in the red, and they would need at least 25 percent of the capacity to make ends meet," Ryu said. "Our expectations were that, should the situation with COVID-19 stabilize in the latter half of the year, we would get that number to 50 to 70 percent. That would really have helped our teams, but I think we can just forget about that now."
Ryu said he was also concerned about the long-term financial health of the clubs, most of which are owned and operated by major corporations, such as Samsung, Doosan, LG, SK and Hanwha.
"My understanding is that most of the teams have taken out bank loans to keep their operations afloat," Ryu said. "Teams will be reluctant to spend much on free agents, foreign players and rookies." (Yonhap)