A brief history of KBO franchise names
When the Heroes crashed out of the playoffs in the fifth game of a down-to-the-wire postseason clash with the SK Wyverns, the club’s sponsorship contract with Nexen came to an end.
Immediately after getting knocked out of the postseason, the team officially became the Seoul Heroes, the only team in the KBO without a sponsor in their name. The name Seoul Heroes didn’t last very long, though. Just week later, the club finalized a deal with securities firm Kiwoom Securities. The club is now tentatively being referred to as the Kiwoom Heroes, although its official name won’t be revealed until January.
This isn’t the first time that the Heroes have been rebranded. The club started life as the Sammi Superstars in 1982 and has since existed as the Chungbo Pintos, the Taepyungyang Dolphins, the Hyundai Unicorns, the Woori Heroes and simply the Heroes.
The Sammi Superstars were the original Incheon baseball club and one of the six founding teams of the KBO. In 1985, the club was rebranded as the Chungbo Pintos, and two years later it became the Taepyungyang Dolphins, or Pacific Dolphins.
After seven years as the Pacific Dolphins, Hyundai bought the franchise in 1996, and the Hyundai Unicorns were born. The Unicorns continued to play at Incheon Sungui Baseball Stadium until 2000, when the club moved to Suwon, Gyeonggi. The Unicorns’ departure left a vacancy in Incheon that the newly formed SK Wyverns quickly filled.
The Hyundai Unicorns were a force to be reckoned with in Korean baseball, winning the Korean Series four times — in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004 — and coming in second twice. The Unicorns’ performance was so impressive that they still hold the fourth-highest number of championships in KBO history, a record they now share with the SK Wyverns.
Unlike every other club in the league, Centennial did not name its new team after the company. Instead, in a bid to raise funds, Centennial sold the naming rights of the club to Woori Tobacco in 2008. From the summer of 2008, the Heroes competed with no sponsor, listed only as the Heroes, before Nexen came on board in 2010.
Woori Tobacco broke off its sponsorship deal in with the Heroes in Aug. 2008 because the club had not fully paid its joining fees to the KBO. Lee Jang-seok, the Heroes’ president and head of Centennial, was later arrested on embezzlement and fraud charges after an investor reported that Lee had never given him the shares in the club that he had paid for. Lee was jailed on Sept. 19 this year.
For many Heroes fans, the new name change will hopefully signal a new beginning. The club and its Futures League team are now owned by the Seoul Heroes, a company specifically set up to manage the teams. Like Nexen and Woori, Kiwoom has only bought the naming rights.
Although the Heroes are the only team in the KBO to sell their naming rights, name changes are common in the league. Of the six founding teams, only the Lotte Giants and the Samsung Lions have kept their names over the last 36 years.
The Doosan Bears, also a founding team, were originally the OB Bears. The Bears were founded in Daejeon in 1982 and moved to Seoul in 1985, becoming the Doosan Bears in 1999. Gwangju’s Kia Tigers started life as the Haitai Tigers, and didn’t become the Kia Tigers until 2001. The last founding team, the MBC Chungyong, was taken over by LG in 1989 and became the LG Twins.
The Hanwha Eagles joined the KBO in 1985, filling the vacant spot in Daejeon after the OB Bears moved to Seoul. The Eagles were originally founded as the Binggrae Eagles, but changed their name to the Hanwha Eagles in 1993. Unlike the other teams, the Eagles didn’t actually change sponsors — Binggrae was originally a trademark owned by Hanwha and the club changed name when the brand was spun off.
In 2000 the Wyverns were formed out of the now defunct Ssangbangwool Raiders, keeping the total number of teams in the KBO at eight. The final two teams — the NC Dinos and the KT Wiz — joined in the last decade and have both kept their original names.
In the case of both the Raiders and the Unicorns, the KBO was forced to step in and support the cash-strapped franchises to ensure that there were at least eight teams in the league. This drive to keep a competitive number of clubs in the KBO helped open the door for Centennial’s mismanagement of the Heroes and the continuous rebranding of the club.
But things have started to improve for the Heroes in the last year. Fans started returning in large numbers to the Gocheok Sky Dome in western Seoul this season, a feat facilitated by the addition of former major leaguer Park Byung-ho.
The Heroes were also competitive on the field, finishing the regular season in fourth place and then beating the Tigers and the Eagles in the postseason to finish the playoffs in third. Whatever Kiwoom decides to name the club next year, the fans will be hoping that the team’s 2018 success continues.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]