In Korea, Baseball Becomes Girls Night Out – Wall Street Journal
On a recent Tuesday night, Han Ga-eun, a 20-year-old college student, and her older sister Su-jin sat high in the cheap seats at Seoul’s main baseball stadium.
Dressed in matching LG Twins jerseys, the Han sisters cheered for their struggling hometown team as it fell behind the rival Nexen Heroes. Five times a month the Han sisters do this: Eat fried chicken, sip beer and bang thundersticks in step with the crowd.
“When we were young, we used to come with our dad,” explains Su-jin over a raucous roar. “But he lost interest because LG isn’t as good anymore.”
Not so the sisters. The Twins may be 56-73 this season, second to last in the 10-team Korea Baseball Organization. But when these sisters aren’t at the stadium, they’re watching games on TVs or smartphones.
South Korean baseball is attracting ever larger—and ever younger—crowds, with particular growth among college students, young professionals and women. The Twins say that the percentage of women in its team fan club has jumped 45% this year from 25% in 2011.
For young people on a budget, the ballpark offers a relatively cheap night out, with seats as low as $7.50 as well as inexpensive food and a half-liter of draft beer for about $2.
Korean-style baseball also offers “sportainment,” a concept that would surely offend MLB purists: Cheerleaders model dance routines atop dugouts. Thundersticks, reportedly a Korean invention, explode without cease. In between innings, beer-chugging competitions are held among females.
Each home-team batter has his own custom song, his name slipped into the lyrics of tunes like “Surfin’ U.S.A.”
“In the U.S., people go to a game to watch baseball,” says Patrick Bourgo, a Los Angeles native who runs the Korea chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. “In Korea, people are there to experience an event, and it’s as much off the field as on the field.”
Not that the athletes don’t play along. Bat flipping—frowned upon in major-league ballparks—is an art form in South Korea, with pitchers taking no offense.
When Dan Kurtz, a Korean adoptee who grew up in Philadelphia, watched his first game in South Korea, he was disappointed with the quality of play, but has since come to embrace the game for what it is.
While it’s a little rough around the edges, he says, the raucous energy makes for a more vibrant experience than at major-league parks. Weak bullpens mean that leads often change in later innings, says Kurtz, who for 13 years has run a website, MyKBO, dedicated to the 10-team KBO.
American expatriate Thomas St. John teaches a class on Korean baseball history at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul. What strikes him about the current game is the burgeoning number of female fans, he says.
“In the 1990s, female fans were hardcore, but now you see a lot more casual fans,” says St. John. “Baseball players have become idolized like pop stars.”
St. John suspects that some teams, like the LG Twins, deliberately try to sign photogenic baseball players, positioning them almost like pop idols. “It’s not a big secret,” St. John says.
A spokesman for the LG Twins doesn’t exactly dispute the point, crediting “our handsome players” as one reason for the team’s popularity with female fans.
Last year, the Twins joined forces with Hello Kitty, slapping the popular Japanese character on pink LG uniforms sold to female fans at the stadium. The Twins have staged “Ladies Day” events featuring fingernail painting, tarot readings and cosmetics giveaways. The team also held a special lecture series to teach women the rules of baseball and the coordinated cheers for each Twins’ star.
Other KBO teams such as the SK Wyverns are making similar moves. That team’s stadium in Incheon, South Korea, features a mobile app that allows fans to order pizza, beer or fried chicken to their seats. To attract women, it has diversified its menu, made fireworks a weekly post-game fixture and added powder rooms and play zones for children.
“Women are important because they have purchasing power and, when they become mothers, they can bring their children too,” says Kim Sung-yong, an SK Wyverns executive.
Kim says the team is constantly trying to come up with new innovations to outmaneuver amusement parks and movie theaters. Every year, he said, team officials visit U.S. and Japanese baseball parks and European soccer stadiums in search of new ideas.
—Min Sun Lee contributed to this article.
Write to Jonathan Cheng at firstname.lastname@example.org
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