[SPORTS VIEW]For pro baseball, it's grow or die time

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[SPORTS VIEW]For pro baseball, it's grow or die time

Someone at the top of the Korean Baseball Association must have gotten nervous. It was about time. Attendance fell this year by 20 percent. Another dropoff like that would be fatal.

The league met Tuesday to discuss the budget for next season. They also agreed to add two new teams by the 2004.

This year, attendance fell to 2.4 million, or about 4,500 fans per game. The league can point to many reasons for the drop: The World Cup soccer tournament, the Busan Asian Games and the three- week break during the World Cup that pushed the baseball season deep into the fall, with the Korean Series played in a chilly November. But excuses are like noses, everyone's got one and they all smell. The problem with Korean pro baseball is its old facilities and a fading fun factor.

Simply put, the league has two few teams. With only eight clubs, it doesn't feel like a "big league," it feels like a "small league." Adding two more teams will give the league more respect; and more importantly, it will ratchet up the fun factor. It's always exciting when a league expands -- fans in cities that never had a pro club suddenly have one, and can go see the best players in the country play. Look for Pohang, in Gyeongsang province, to get a team, sponsored by the steelmaker Posco. The other new club? Too soon to tell.

But it may be more realistic to base the two new teams in cities that already have teams; for example, Seoul has three teams but could support another. But the structure of the league might hinder that. Teams have hometowns guaranteed to them and are eager to keep them for themselves. Seoul has the LG Twins, Doosan Bears and Hyundai Unicorns, while Busan belongs to the Lotte Giants. These clubs won't stand by idly and let a new team steal some of their fans, even if it is beneficial for the league overall.

The Korean baseball league started out in 1982 with six teams. Since then it has added only two teams. In 1986 the Bingrae Eagles came on board; they are now the Hanwha Eagles. Five years later the Ssangbangwool Raiders became the league's eighth team. Two years ago they became the SK Wyverns.

The league has set up some basic guidelines for prospective owners of the two new clubs. The team owner should have ties to the city the club will be based in -- the company should be operating its business in the region, or the company's founder or chief should be from there. And the company should have revenues of at least 1 trillion won ($820 million) per year.

The league will accept applications next year, review them and select two winners. The two new teams would begin playing in the second half of the season in 2004, then be fully integrated into the regular season the following year.

Sure it's a risk to expand the league. The fan base for the existing teams could be diluted. More likely, though, a bigger league would create more rivalries and more diversity, bringing in more fans. Having watched the evolution of the league from the early days -- I was a member of the OB Bears kids fan club, way back when -- I'm sad to say that the league has lost its spirit. Hopefully, expansion will help to revive it.

by Brian Lee

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