[SPORTS VIEW]Pennant race ends, but league in tatters

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[SPORTS VIEW]Pennant race ends, but league in tatters

The Korean pro baseball league is winding down its regular season and gearing up for the first round of the playoffs, which start Monday. Samsung will take the pennant, with Kia, Hyundai and most likely LG getting playoff berths. LG gets in if it wins one of its two remaining games or if the team trailing it, Doosan, loses one of its last two games.

The player to watch in the playoffs will be Samsung's slugger Lee Seung-yob, who lit up the league this year with 46 homeruns -- the firstbaseman topped the Korean League in that category. Another guy to watch is Kia's shortstop, Lee Jong-bum, who has rebounded from a failed attempt to play in the Japanese league.

So this should be a time of eagerness and excitement. But the truth is league officials are worried about the dropoff in attendance the league has experienced this year -- a steep dropoff. I spoke to an official at the Korean Baseball Organization this week, and he said total attendance fell this year by 19 percent from last year's numbers. If you want to blame it on someone or something, you can find plenty of scapegoats: You could blame the World Cup and the Asian Games, two international sports events held on the peninsula, and both during the baseball season. Those colossal events stole substantial news coverage from Korean baseball. You can also blame the rising popularity of the Korean soccer league, but I don't buy that.

You would think that if attendance falls drastically it would be a lot easier to count the fans -- you could even make a head count between the first and second innings. But that's not how it works. I talked to an official at Lotte this week, and he told me they had stopped counting people in their last couple of games. His logic: "Why bother?"

Samsung, as part of a "fan service" promotion, admitted fans into two games this year for free -- an indication of some clubs' desperation.

The sad fact behind the sinking attendance numbers is that Korean baseball has failed to improve its facilities over the years. While the country got several new state-of-the-art soccer stadiums for the World Cup, baseball fans are still sitting on concrete benches in sagging ballparks.

If the teams were willing to fork out the cash to pay for snazzy new stadiums with splashy scoreboards and comfortable seats, the fans would come back. Unfortunately, though, the structure of the Korean pro league -- with each of the teams sponsored by corporations -- makes this difficult.

Virtually all of the teams lose money for the corporations that sponsor them. As a consequence, the clubs are treated as a promotional tool for the companies rather than a profit-making unit. So while companies value the prestige of owning a ballclub, they are reluctant to commit funds to improve the teams or the stadiums in which they play. The bottom line? The fans lose.

Korean baseball needs an overhaul, a cultural overhaul. It needs a system in place that ensures that the games are played in modern stadiums, and it needs a new approach to spruce up its image and make the games more interesting.

"Sports View" appears Thursdays and Saturdays in the JoongAng Daily.

by Brian Lee

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