Korean Baseball

Posted: May 22, 2012 in South Korea

During two of the last three weekends I have had the pleasure of attending a Korean professional baseball team. The nine-team league is known as the Korea Baseball Championship or, colloquially, Korea Professional Baseball.  I had no previous experience with Korean baseball so I decided to be a fan of the LG Twins, mainly because my close friends made the convincing argument in their favor.  The conversation went something like this:

Andrew: “You should just root for the LG Twins.”

Me: “OK.”

As you can see, I drive a hard bargain.  Game on.

Now there are many differences between Korean baseball and American baseball, and not the least of which is noticed long before you step foot in the ballpark.  Teams in Korea are owned by big businesses and the company name is incorporated in to the team name, as opposed to the city in which the team resides.  LG Twins, Samsung Lions, and Kia Tigers are a few of the corporate-owned teams in which Americans would most readily recognize the company name.  The differences, however, go far deeper than just the teams’ names — some of which could be adopted by their American counterparts.

The second difference I noticed was affordability.  Now obviously the US Dollar is a little stronger than the Korean Won, but that gap has closed greatly within the last several years.  And it is true that things, generally speaking, are more affordable in South Korea than in the United States, even in the comparably big cities.  We were able to get very favorable seats to both games without spending more than 20,000 won, or about $17.00.  We were roughly 15 rows up for the first game (pictured above) and in the first row of the upper deck behind home plate for the second.  There are American teams that have middle and upper deck seats for less than $17, but not by much, and 20,000 won wasn’t a bad price for the seats we had.

Once we got to our seats, I was never more willing to pay 20,000 won for a ticket than when I found out the beer man selling draft beer out of the pony keg strapped to his back was selling cold beers for a cool 2,500 won, or about $2.00.  Two dollar drafts certainly beat the hell out of paying $8.00 for a beer poured out of a luke-warm can that has been jostled around by the burly beer guy who struggles to climb each step.  Now I typically don’t complain about beer prices in American stadiums because I consider that a luxury and would prefer that the food prices for the kids be more affordable in lieu of cheap beer.   Fortunately for me on this day, however, I didn’t have kids and am in a position to have a liquid lunch.  Hey, 2,500 won drafts — if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em…right?

Once the game began, the biggest difference apparent is also the most exciting.  The crowd is unlike any in America (save, perhaps, for a Yankess at Red Sox tilt or the playoffs).  The first game I attended featured two Seoul-based teams, the LG Twins and the Doosan Bears, that also happen to be generally regarded as in the top tier of the league each year.  Think New York Mets versus New York Yankees if they were the two best teams in the league and add the passion of the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.  The stadium was split right down the middle, with Doosan fans occupying the third base line and the LG fans residing on the first base line.  Unfortunately we were seated in the hated Doosan Bears section but it didn’t detract from the fun because the majority of fans are quite friendly, despite the rivalry.  Basically, you’re not going to have an unemployed guy dressed like the grim reaper pour a beer on your head like you might as an opposing fan at an Oakland Raiders game.

Throughout the game, both teams fans were constantly cheering.  They have cheerleaders — yes, cheerleaders — that lead very organized chants that are nearly non-stop throughout the game.  When the fans weren’t chanting in unison, they were banging the ever popular thunder sticks:

It won’t even cost you to get into this noise-making fun as nearly every vendor setup outside the stadium is passing out sets for free with your team’s name and color scheme. Cheap and/or free generally leads to happier fans.

Simply put, the atmosphere was amazing.  Think European futbol but with less stabbing of each other in passionate rage at the end of the game.

Obviously the quality of play leaves something to be desired when compared to American baseball but I would think the casual baseball fan wouldn’t be able to tell a difference.  There is, surprisingly, an underlying benefit to the poorer play in that no lead is safe, the scores are generally higher, and the sense of the unknown on every play (few plays are routine) creates an extra layer of excitement.

Now I’m not saying teams in the United States should start playing crappy players — although if they choose to, I’m officially offering up my services to the highest bidder (hey Reds, call me).  I do believe, however, there are some marketing techniques that American teams can learn from the Korean clubs considering I watched two games played to a packed, raucous house and some Major League Baseball teams struggle to get fans in the seats each night.

If I were staying in Korea through the summer I have no doubt that I would be back to the ballpark for several more games, the total package was that fun.  And while I firmly believe if I stayed longer I might have had an outside shot of suiting up for the LG Twins, thanks to the atmosphere and experience they have at least made me a fan for life.

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