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Baseball fans love the sport, no matter where it is played

May 18,2016
The popularity of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) among Korean baseball fans is on the rise. In the past, the KBO saw a dramatic decrease in viewership due to the heightened interest in the Major League among local fans. However, the two leagues now share a similar viewing rate. [JOONGANG PHOTO]
After years of being in a love-hate relationship, baseball in Korea and the United States has reconciled to satisfy the insatiable demands of an ever-growing fan base.

This season is a landmark for Korean baseball which has more homegrown players than ever in the starting lineup of Major League Baseball (MLB) teams in the United States. Based on the MLB opening day roster, there are eight Korean baseball players now on the big stage in the U.S.

Fans’ interest today in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) games has never been greater, although competition from the United States initially pulled fans from domestic games when star Koreans first began to steal the limelight on American teams.

The popularity of baseball has grown from its initial faltering steps in the early 90’s to become the most-watched sport in the country. MBC, who has MLB broadcasting rights in Korea, has added another channel to stream live games from the United States.

In various news media, home runs by Park Byung-ho of the Minnesota Twins, Lee Dae-ho of the Seattle Mariners and Kang Jung-ho of the Pittsburgh Pirates are the most watched events.

As attention for the U.S. league has risen, there are concerns that the KBO will suffer from Korean fans abandoning local games in favor of “big league” games in the States. Alternatively, others see that the increased popularity of baseball as a whole, can only benefit the KBO.

Concern that the KBO might lose out to the American league are not unwarranted. The proof was illustrated by Park Chan-ho, the first Korean ever to play in the MLB.

For the first time in its history, the KBO hosted 5 million spectators in a single season in 1995, a year after Park Chan-ho made his MLB debut for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In the subsequent year, however, the KBO saw more than 500,000 fewer fans attend domestic games. Given that 1996 was the first full season for Park with the Dodgers, it is no coincidence that KBO experienced such large drop in attendance.

Park became a full-time starter for the Dodgers the following year, even bagging his first shutout win. While Park was having his breakout season in the big league, the number of fans watching the KBO dropped even further, this time as low as 3.9 million. For the first time in five years since 1992, the average fans per game also plunged below 8,000.

When Park belted 18 wins in a single season in 1998, making him the Asian pitcher with most wins in one season, the number of fans attending KBO games nose-dived below 3 million, the worst since 1991.

While local stadiums were deserted, the viewing rate of the MLB on television skyrocketed. On June 2, 1997 games between the Dodgers and Saint Louis Cardinals aired by KBS drew an audience rate of 5.9%. This was 0.3% more than the presidential debate that was televised at the same time. What’s more, the MLB game was not even a live broadcast but a recording.

In 2002 when the FIFA World Cup was held in South Korea, the number spectators for Korean professional baseball games collapsed to around 2.3 million.

The Dark Age of Korean baseball seemed to come to an end in 2008. After the Korean national team brought home gold from the Beijing Olympics in 2008, the public became more intrigued about the sport in local venues with local players and interest in the American “big league” which lacked Korean stars dwindled.

While a large number of Korean fans follow domestic teams and players, there has been rapid growth in the interest for the American game. According to MBC Sports +, who possesses exclusive rights to cover the big league, the MLB game between Baltimore Orioles and Kansas City Royals on April 24 reached 2.063% in viewing rate. The viewing rate for the game during the Children’s Day on May 5 between Chicago White Sox and the Orioles was 1.869%. MLB games are big business drawing big money for cable channels, where a program that reaches 2% in viewers is considered a jackpot.

In addition to television, the sport is taking over the internet. At the moment, baseball related content causes the most traffic for websites such as Naver, a popular web portal provided by the Korean Internet content service operator Naver Corporation.

“The traffic share between the content for the KBO and those for the MLB are about 50-50,” said a spokeperson for Naver. Before Ryu Hyun-jin joined the Dodgers and Kang joined the Pirates, the proportion was about 8 to 2, in favor of the KBO. The share evened out during the winter transfer window before this season when players like Park Byung-ho, Lee Dae-ho, Kim Hyun-soo of Orioles and Oh Seung-hwan of the Cardinals signed with their respective teams. Although the KBO season began in April, the traffic share remains balanced.

And the big audience numbers for the MLB don’t seem to be impeding the popularity of the KBO, indicating a substantial growth in overall demand rather than a division of the fan base.

As of May 9, the average viewing rate for the 151 KBO games was 0.87, about a 0.13% increase compared to the average viewing rate of last year. MBC Sports + recorded a viewing rate of more than 1% during the first month of the league. The competing channels, such as SBS Sports and KBS N SPORTS, also recorded a viewing rate around 0.8% during the same period.

“Major Leaguers like Park Byung-ho, Lee, Oh and Ryu all come from the KBO,” said Song Jae-woo, a baseball commentator for MBC Sports +. “Their performance in the big league is directly related to the value of the KBO.”

The Naver spokesman added, “Demand for Major League related contents has seen an increase. But, instead of taking over the web traffic originally designated for the KBO, the overall volume of traffic for baseball related contents as a whole has expanded. We see it as a net growth, rather than proportional growth.”

The number of spectators attending the KBO games is also encouraging. As of second week of May, the average number of fans attending the games stands at 12,253, about a 13% increase compared to last year around the same period.

At this pace, the KBO could see more than 8 million fans filling stadiums by the time the season comes to an end, for the first time in its history.

“Each club has a solid fan base now,” said a KBO representative. “Compared to the past, external factors don’t really affect the popularity of the KBO any more.

“The level of sport and the performance by the players also have increased quite a bit, narrowing the gap in comparison to other leagues outside of Korea such as the MLB,” he added.

With the interest in baseball skyrocketing, whether it be the MLB or the KBO, Korea and the U.S. seem to be drawn together in a symbiotic relationship and no longer competing for custody of a huge fan base at the expense of the other.

BY BAE JUNG-HYUNE [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]


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