A while ago, I wrote an article on the Taiwanese professional leagues, so I thought I’d move on to another Asian country and provide a profile on the status of professional baseball in South Korea. Sports-wise, baseball is probably the second most popular sport in the country, after soccer.
Korea’s baseball roots can be traced back to the early 20th century and the missionary treks throughout Asia. The sport became an official professional league in 1982, when the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) formed the Korea Professional Baseball league (KPB). The KBO also formed the Futures League, which acts as the KPB’s minor league system.
The league started with six teams and currently has eight, with a ninth to debut in 2013. The teams are located all over South Korea, with three in the Seoul (South Korea’s capital) metropolitan area and another not too far in Incheon (a sister city 20 miles west of Seoul).
The nine teams currently playing are the SK Wyverns (Incheon), Doosan Bears (Seoul), LG Twins (Seoul), Nexen Heroes (Seoul), Lotte Giants (Busan), Hanwha Eagles (Daejeon), Kia Tigers (Gwangju), Samsung Lions (Daegu) and NC Dinos (Changwon—will appear in the league in 2013, with its minor league team starting in 2012).
Teams are named in the same way as in other Asian baseball leagues, like in Japan and Taiwan, after the conglomerate firm that owns the team. Some organizations, like the Lotte Giants or the Samsung Lions have not changed names since becoming league members. On the other hand, some teams have changed ownership a few times. For instance, the current Nexen Heroes have changed ownership several times; they were once known as the Taepyeongyang Dolphins (1988-1995) and the Hyundai Unicorns (1996-2007). Take a look at Craig Robinson‘s nice infographic below on historical KPB team name and location changes.
The above graphic shows us the two steep climbs in attendance over the course of KPB’s history. The league steadily increased its popularity, reaching its first peak in 1995. We see a decline in attendance that lasted for about a decade following the 1995 peak. The second spike came in 2007, with an increase of more than a million tickets sold compared to 2006. Subsequent years have also shown increased attendance figures.
This past year has seen the highest total in attendance for the KPB—6.75 million people attending baseball games. An explanatory variable for the increase in popularity could be due to Korea’s national team placing fairly high in recent international baseball tournaments; they won the 2008 Olympic games as well as placing well in the 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic.
Despite being located in Busan, Korea’s second most populous city, the Lotte Giants held the highest attendance rate in 2011. The Giants have been quite popular for some time, as some would consider them to be the equivalent of Nippon Professional Baseball’s (NPB) Yamiuri Giants or MLB’s New York Yankees.
The Nexen Heroes of Seoul, Korea’s most populous city, had the lowest attendance figures in 2011, though a lot of that may have to do with them being in existence for only three years.
Korea Series and playoffs
Teams play 133 games throughout the year. The playoffs system allows the top four teams to compete at the season’s end. The playoffs consist of three rounds:
First round—Third and fourth place teams face off in a best of five series.
Second round—Winner of the first round plays the second place team in another best of five (used to be a seven game series, but changed in 2009).
Korea Series—Best of seven series featuring the first place team against the second round winner.
In the first two decades the KPB was dominated by the Tigers, who won nine Korea Series tournaments. Back then known as the Haitai Tigers, they’ve come down a bit from their legacy days, but they’ve also had recent success; they won the 2009 Korea Series.
The dominant team over the past four years has been the SK Wyverns, as they have won three of the past four Korea Series (they lost the 2009 Series to the Tigers). Every team has won the Korea Series except for the Heroes; again, the youngest team of the bunch.
Some unique rules
The league copies MLB’s American League structure by having the Designated Hitter rule. The league also has a rule to ensure enough Korean nationals are playing professionally—a two player cap on foreign players per team.
What’s interesting about this rule is the effect it has on the Korean baseball market and what the teams address with this two-player max. Of the eight current teams (totaling 16 foreign players allowed), only two are position players, while the rest are pitchers (one a closer, the rest are starters). This seems a bit telling. Apparently the Koreans see foreign pitching as the better option when allocating these two spaces. Perhaps pitching isn’t a focal point in the Korean amateur ranks. I guess Byung-Hyun Kim and Chan Ho Park were exceptions.
Another rule that some Americans may be familiar with is the required two-year military service time in Korea. It applies to all Korean males, even if you are one of the few playing professional baseball. The only exception is given to those on the national team who win a major international tournament. In the case that I’m referring to, Shin-Soo Choo was allowed an exemption to the rule once the national team won the Asian Games in 2010. I guess international glory for your country is equivalent to a two year commitment!
References & Resources
Various articles and Wikipedia were used for this article as resources. Infographic on KBO name history comes from Craig Robinson. Other three graphs used figures coming from the KBO website.