A Korean team drops the ball ― againSometimes I think my girlfriend likes Hong Myeong-bo more than she likes me. Before his retirement from the national team, when Hong used to make regular appearances on TV, she would call out his name and say, “Ahhh, it’s him. He looks so cool.”
I like Hong Myeong-bo as a soccer player, but I don’t like my girlfriend getting so excited over him. So whenever she would get all worked up I would say, “He looks sloppy today,” or “He’s married ― and old.”
Nonetheless, when she’s in her admiring-Hong mode it’s as if she’s under a spell.
Anyway, one day when I was interviewing Lee Jae-hyung, a soccer memorabilia collector, there was one item that drew my attention. It was Hong’s national team jersey, autographed by the man himself. I asked how much he would sell it for, but he just kept shaking his head. “Not for sale,” he said.
My guess is the numbers I threw at him weren’t anywhere near high enough. The guy is a serious collector. He didn’t hesitate to pay 6 million won ($5,000) for a signed picture of Korea’s first World Cup squad. He did not buy the item at an auction. He heard about the owner of that rare piece by word of mouth.
In Korea, the market for sports memorabilia is virtually nonexistent. No baseball cards are traded and few signed jerseys are sold over the Internet. It’s not that there is no demand (there are other Lee Jae-hyungs out there), but there are too few products around which a market can be formed.
Several times I have said that professional Korean sports teams fail to market themselves, especially by not producing quality merchandise for fans to buy. Not only are the products missing, but also the mindset to link sports and business. The most recent example is the reward offered by the Samsung Lions to the person who returns the 300th home run ball hit by Lee Seung-yeob.
If I were in the Lions’ front office, I would have offered a much bigger prize than a 29-inch TV, two season tickets and a ball signed by the slugger.
Lee’s achievement was hailed around the country. He is the youngest baseball player in the world to reach that milestone. With so much hoopla, I think the ball could be used as a great marketing tool for the Lions and the Korean Baseball Organization. How about displaying it in some kind of sports museum? Wouldn’t sports fans be willing to pay to get a look at a piece of baseball history? Either the KBO or the Lions should have grabbed the opportunity to market their sport. Again, they let it slip through their fingers.
The Lions have made it clear that they would not engage in a price bidding war for the ball hit by Lee. A Korean living in China, Choi Woong-jae, 70, announced on Sunday that he was willing to buy the ball for $100,000. He said he plans to donate it to a school in China to inspire the students there. Whether Mr. Choi will end up with the ball is still unknown, but to think that such a significant piece of Korean sports history might end up in a Chinese school just isn’t right.
If Korean baseball truly wishes to start a renaissance, somebody has to get the ball rolling, so to speak, and start marketing the game.
by Brian Lee