No better time to expand: KBO

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No better time to expand: KBO

The Korea Baseball Organization’s front office is strongly considering adding two expansion teams to the current eight-team league, despite reservations from existing KBO clubs.

“If not now, when will we be able to expand our league?” said Lee Sang-il, the KBO secretary general. “Sponsors and investors showing interest in expansion is a sign of the current state of baseball in Korea.”

The KBO is coming off two-straight record-setting seasons in attendance. Just over 5.9 million people attended professional games in 2009, breaking the previous record set in 1995. And fans followed 2009’s numbers up with another record of 5.928 million this year.

Korea’s gold-medal winning performance at the 2008 Beijing Summer Games and second-place finish at the 2009 World Baseball Classic has increased national interest in baseball over the past few years.

The KBO front office also sees expansion as an opportunity to help the amateur ranks.

“Expansion is an opportunity for us to contribute to building for the future,” said Lee. “About 600 high school senior baseball players graduate each year and only about 10 percent of them get to turn pro.

“Unlike Japan, we don’t have corporate-sponsored semiprofessional leagues, and this means the number of unemployed baseball players will only continue to increase. The only way to build toward a positive future in Korean baseball is to include more teams.”

But despite the benefits, there has been strong opposition to the idea.

Critics - including Lotte Giants’ president Jang Byung-soo - argue that the league needs to do a better job maintaining and managing the current teams before considering expansion. The Giants are based in Busan and enjoy strong fan support in surrounding areas, including Changwon and other cities in South Gyeongsang. They fear that support will be eroded if Changwon is awarded a team. Changwon signed a memorandum of understanding with the KBO in October.

Others argue that a failed expansion team would result in a significant financial burden for existing teams. The Ssangbangwool Raiders, which played out of Jeonju, North Jeolla from 1990 to 1999 is a prime example, while the financially strapped Nexen Heroes have resorted to trading star players for cash and prospects over the past two seasons.

According to a report released by the KBO, the league sees expansion as a logical step forward. It can expand the baseball market in Korea; increase the number of games in a season; increase profits through attendance, broadcasting rights and ad revenue; there will be more opportunities to promote the league through increased media exposure; and there will be investors to build new stadiums.

The KBO also made public its plans to support any expansion franchises. The league is willing to allow a new club to choose a city of its choice. In addition, an expansion team would be given two first round draft picks for two seasons and the rights to claim a single player from each of the eight teams. Each team would be allowed to protect 20 players from its roster. An expansion team would be allowed to carry an extra roster spot for two seasons.

Serious discussion on expansion to a nine or 10 team league started in August when Kenneth Young, an American businessman and owner of American minor league Triple-A clubs Norfolk Tides, Albuquerque Isotopes and Double-A team Bowie Baysox, submitted an official application for an expansion franchise in Ansan, Gyeonggi. It has been reported that Young submitted the application with a clause stating he would invest in a team only under the condition that the club play in a domed stadium. Ansan signed a contract with Hyundai Engineering and Construction Co. in 2007 to build Korea’s first domed stadium.

The league officials have maintained that if expansion was to happen, it would be better to include two teams instead of one.

By Kim Seek, Jason Kim []
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