Inside the KBO: From Superstars to Wiz in 39 years
The KBO was shaken last week by the unexpected announcement that SK Telecom was selling the SK Wyverns to Shinsegae Group, with supermarket chain Emart taking over as the new owner.
The decision to sell the team came as a surprise, apparently even to SK. The telecom company said after the news broke that it hadn’t been actively looking to sell, but was impressed by Shinsegae’s pitch and decided to take the offer.
With a new owner comes a new name, and while it’s not yet clear what Shinsegae will call the club, one thing is inevitable: The SK Wyverns are no more.
The Incheon side is far from the first club to change its name. In fact, the SK Wyverns are the 13th team name to disappear from the KBO, joining a menagerie of forgotten animals and once-powerful companies in the league’s history books.
In 1982, the KBO was founded with six teams: MBC Chungryong in Seoul; Sammi Superstars in Incheon; OB Bears in Daejeon; Samsung Lions in Daegu; Haitai Tigers in Gwangju; and Lotte Giants in Busan.
Of those six founding KBO teams, only two remain unchanged today: the Lions and the Giants.
Broadcaster MBC eventually sold the Chungryong to LG in 1989, accepting that owning a sports team wasn’t the best way to ensure its journalistic integrity. The team was renamed LG Twins and has stayed the same ever since.
Aside from moving from Dongdaemun in central Seoul to Jamsil in southern Seoul during that first 1982 season, the Twins have seen no other changes throughout the club’s history.
The Haitai Tigers went through a similar process in 1998, when the Asian financial crisis hit confectionary company Haitai hard, forcing it to sell the club to Kia, and the Kia Tigers were born.
For the OB Bears, the situation was slightly different. The Bears moved to Seoul in 1985 and became the Doosan Bears in 1999. In the case of the Bears, it wasn’t Oriental Brewery that sold the club, but Doosan Group that sold Oriental Brewery.
After selling OB to Inbev in 1998, Doosan chose to keep the team, rebranding it as the Doosan Bears. The Bears and the Twins have shared Jamsil Baseball Stadium since 1985, producing a subway series so acutely localized that neither team actually has to ride the subway.
The sixth founding team, the Sammi Superstars, has a far more storied history.
Superstars and Unicorns
The Sammi Superstars, founded by Sammi Steel, started life in the old Incheon Sungui Baseball Stadium in Incheon, a relic of the 1930s that is no longer standing today.
The Superstars, with their distinctive logo of a half-naked superhero playing baseball, didn’t last very long. After a historic season in 1983, the Superstars started to struggle and were eventually sold off halfway through the 1985 season — although at that point the KBO played two half seasons, so the sale was actually during the summer break.
The Incheon club was very briefly reborn as the Chungbo Pintos, adopting one of the KBO’s most iconic emblems: A baseball-playing donkey.
The Pintos fared even worse than the Superstars, lasting just two and a half years before being sold off again, this time to Taepyungyang, a cosmetics company that has now grown into the Amorepacific Corporation.
The Taepyungyang Dolphins lasted a lot longer. Known as the Pacific Dolphins in English — Taepyungyang means Pacific Ocean in Korean, hence Amorepacific — the new Incheon side managed to hold on from 1988 to 1995. But like both the Superstars and the Pintos, the Dolphins never actually managed to win anything.
In 1995, the team’s luck changed. Taepyungyang sold the club to Hyundai, creating the Hyundai Unicorns. The team was actually owned by Hynix, which is now SK hynix, but back then was part of Hyundai Group.
Hyundai turned the team around, quickly transforming it into a serious contender that went on to win the Korean Series four times, in 1998, 2000, 2003 and 2004. The team’s emblem also changed — this time to a unicorn playing baseball — keeping the signature at-bat pose that appeared on the Superstars, Pintos and Dolphins logos.
But despite their early success, the Unicorns had serious financial difficulties. The IMF crisis hit Hyundai hard and the amount of money it was willing to spend on baseball started to fall.
In 2000, as the number of spectators in Incheon had been steadily falling, the club made an abortive attempt to move to Seoul, initially to Mok-dong and then to Sangam-dong, both in western Seoul.
The move to Seoul turned out to be too expensive and with Incheon no longer an option, the Hyundai Unicorns ended up moving to Suwon, Gyeonggi, where they played out the rest of their days with heavy financial support from the KBO before finally disbanding in January 2008, officially ending the franchise.
Eagles and Raiders
While the Superstars went through its many metamorphoses, things were changing elsewhere in the KBO.
In 1986, the Binggrae Eagles were founded in Daejeon, replacing the Seoul-bound Bears in the city to become the KBO’s seventh team. Seven years later, in 1993, the club became the Hanwha Eagles — like with the Bears, the change was because Hanwha sold confectionary company Binggrae and kept the Eagles, not the other way around.
The Eagles today are perhaps best known as the KBO’s perennial losers, never far from the very bottom of the league table. But that wasn’t always the case — back in the club’s early days, they were a competitive team, winning the pennant in both 1989 and 1992.
The Eagles made it to the Korean Series four times during the Binggrae years, but never actually managed to win. In 1999, the team finally won their first and only Korean Series title. Unfortunately that 1999 title started a 20-year slide that the team still hasn’t emerged from, having only reached the playoffs five times in the last 21 seasons.
But while the Eagles aren’t great, the KBO’s eighth team remains its least successful.
The Ssangbangwool Raiders were founded in 1990 in Jeonju, North Jeolla, and joined the KBO in 1991. Nine seasons later, the team was dissolved after Ssangbangwool Group went bankrupt.
Throughout those nine years, the Raiders made the postseason just twice, in 1996 and 1997, ending its short life without ever winning the pennant or the championship.
The Raiders are perhaps best remembered for a 17-game losing streak in 1999, one of the longest in the league’s history. The team’s emblem — an anthropomorphous baseball with a surprisingly cheeky wink — and its distinctive yellow and black coloring also deserve a special place in the KBO history books.
No attempt has been made to establish a new team in North Jeolla, leaving the region, along with Gangwon in the northeast and Jeju Island, one of the only parts of Korea without a local ball club. North Jeolla sports fans tend to default to the Kia Tigers in Gwangju, just over the border in South Jeolla.
Rise of the Wyverns
When the raiders disbanded, the franchise was subsumed by the KBO and a new franchise was then awarded to SK Telecom.
The new franchise was not allowed to start a club in Seoul — LG and Doosan were already there and Hyundai appeared to be on the way — so chose to set up shop in Incheon, a major city recently vacated by the Unicorns.
The SK Wyverns were born, the KBO’s ninth franchise and the eighth team in the league from the 2000 season. Although the club gained its franchise spot due to the collapse of the Raiders and took over from the Unicorns in Incheon, it has no official connection with either team.
Despite being distinct franchises, the Wyverns did sign many Raiders players and staff.
In 2002, the Wyverns moved to Munhak Baseball Stadium, the club’s home to this day. Very little changed for the team over the following two decades. They grew into a strong contender in the KBO, with four Korean Series titles and three pennants to its name.
The Wyverns will now be reborn for the first time in the club’s history, under Emart. KBO team owners are free to name their teams however they want, so the club’s new owners could choose to rebrand as the “something Wyverns,” or move in a completely different direction.
Emart and Shinsegae don’t plan to announce the club’s new name until March, and although there’s a lot of speculation, its really not clear what the team will be called. As well as Emart and Shinsegae, other possible brands include SSG.com, Emart Traders, NoBrand, Starfield and Electro Mart, to name a few.
Holding out for a hero
While things went well for the Wyverns in Incheon, there was trouble over in Suwon.
The Unicorns were disbanded in January 2008, officially ending the franchise. A new team, the Woori Heroes, was immediately founded in western Seoul by Centennial Investments. Centennial signed most of the old Unicorns players, essentially continuing the franchise, but the old club’s record did not carry over.
The Heroes are technically the KBO’s 10th franchise, but joined the league as the eighth team at the time.
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.
Woori Tobacco broke off its sponsorship deal with the Heroes in August 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.
From the summer of 2008, the Heroes competed with no sponsor, listed only as the Heroes, before Nexen came on board in 2010.
In 2018 the club’s name changed again, to the Kiwoom Heroes. They remain the only club in the league not to be owned by its naming company — Kiwoom own the sponsorship rights, but the club is still owned and managed by the Seoul Heroes, a company specifically set up to manage the team.
To this day, the Heroes are one of the only teams in the KBO to have never won the pennant or the Korean Series.
New kids on the block
The KBO’s final two teams are recent additions.
The NC Dinos were founded in 2011 in the new city of Changwon, South Gyeongsang. Two years later, the team entered the KBO, the 11th franchise and ninth team in the league at the time.
The Dinos were strong pretty much from day one. In 2013, they finished seventh, before rising to become a playoff contender every other year except 2018, finally going on to win the club’s first pennant and championship in 2020.
The KT Wiz, the KBO’s 12th franchise and the 10th team in the league right now, joined in 2015.
KT established the Wiz in Suwon, filling the void left by the Unicorns seven years earlier. With the Bears, Twins and Heroes in Seoul and the Wyverns in Incheon, the Wiz became the fifth team in the greater Seoul area.
Despite a slow start, coming last in their first three seasons, the Wiz slowly built their way up to suddenly burst on to the scene in 2020 as a serious playoff contender after finishing third in the regular season.
The arrival of the Dinos and the Wiz at the end of the financial issues of the late 1990s and early 2000s heralded a golden age for the KBO.
Viewership figures in Korea have continued to climb over the last decade as the league’s popularity grows, and the KBO’s ability to play through the coronavirus pandemic has gained it new fans from all over the world. With millions of domestic fans and as many as 170,000 people tuning into each game on ESPN in the United States last season, the league still has huge potential for growth.
That potential is undoubtedly what Shinsegae Group is hoping to tap into with the Wyverns. Depending on how successful the retail giant’s management of the team is, it could end up affecting how teams are managed throughout the league.
BY JIM BULLEY [email@example.com]