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(2nd LD) KT approved as owner of expansion baseball club

All Headlines 13:55 January 17, 2013

(ATTN: ADD comments in paras 10-13, 20-26; TRIMS; CHANGES photo)
By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, Jan. 17 (Yonhap) -- KT, South Korea's largest fixed line operator and No. 2 mobile carrier, was approved as the owner of a new professional baseball team on Thursday.

At their general meeting, owners of the existing nine clubs in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) put their stamp of approval on the expansion plan put together by KT and the city of Suwon, the provincial capital of Gyeonggi, located south of Seoul.

Through their delegates, the owners unanimously approved the expansion. Under the KBO rules, KT and Suwon's application was subject to approval by at least two-thirds of the owners.

It was the last administrative hurdle for KT, which last week drew more favorable reviews for its application from a group of independent evaluators than its rival Booyoung Group, a local business conglomerate.

Booyoung had partnered with North Jeolla Province, with the latter's provincial capital Jeonju as the proposed home of the new team. After KT edged out Booyoung in the evaluation stage, subjecting KT's plan to owners' approval was regarded as a mere bureaucratic formality because the team representatives were unlikely to override the results of the evaluation.

KT will be required to pay 3 billion won (US$2.8 million) for the league entry fee and separately contribute 20 billion won toward the league's baseball development fund. Also, KT will have to pay another 10 billion won in a sort of security deposit.

If KT can't secure a new stadium of at least 25,000 seats or if it runs into major financial trouble in the next five years, the KBO will then use the deposited money.

The entry fee must be paid within 30 days of the league's approval while the deposit must be made within 90 days. The contribution to the development fund may be made within a year.

KT's team, which has not yet been named, will be the league's second expansion club in three seasons. This year, the NC Dinos, playing out of Changwon, South Gyeonggang Province, will join the KBO as the ninth team, after getting approved by the KBO owners in 2011 and spending 2012 in the Futures League.

After the owners' approval, Lee Suk-chae, the chairman of KT, said the company will try to apply its information and communications technology to baseball operations to create an "entertaining and fun" baseball experience for fans.

"While bidding for the expansion team, I realized how powerful and influential baseball can be," Lee said. "We will work together with Suwon and Gyeonggi Province to help turn baseball into a global industry."

Yeom Tae-young, the mayor of Suwon, said he expects the city and the province to reap major economic benefits from the new baseball team.

"We will follow our plans and contribute to the development of baseball in South Korea," the mayor said. "We will try to make the most of Suwon's marketability to create added value and to transform Suwon into a sports mecca."

The KT ball club will enter the annual rookie draft this summer and will play in the second-tier competition called the Futures League in 2014. It will then join the top flight KBO in 2015. Just as the Dinos did, the KT team is expected to receive prior picks at the draft table.

In South Korea, most professional sports teams are owned and operated by private companies. The current corporate owners in the KBO include major conglomerates such as Doosan, LG and Samsung.

Suwon had served as the home of the now-defunct Hyundai Unicorns, which played there from 2000 to 2007 and won the KBO championships in 2000, 2003 and 2004.

Despite those championship seasons, the Unicorns had trouble filing the stadium. They ranked dead last in home attendance in each of their final three seasons, barely averaging more than 2,000 fans per game.

Incidentally, when the Unicorns folded in late 2007, KT had emerged as a strong candidate to take over the franchise. But the company's plan was rejected by its outside directors, who cited excessive costs to enter the KBO.

The Unicorns eventually became the Woori Heroes, under the sponsorship of the local firm Woori Tobacco, and later were renamed the Nexen Heroes, after their new sponsor, Nexen Tire.

Suwon is remodeling the existing Suwon Baseball Stadium, which opened in 1989 with a capacity of 20,000. The city has said the renovated stadium will hold up to 25,000 by the time KT moves in for the 2015 season.

In the long run, KT could move into a domed stadium in another part of Suwon, Mayor Yeom said.

"It will cost a huge sum of money to build a dome, and we will need to have a clear plan on how we will use it," Yeom said. "I will discuss it with Gyeonggi Governor Kim Moon-soo to formulate a specific construction plan."

Before KT could even field a team, several names have entered the rumor mill as the franchise's inaugural manager. Kim Sung-keun, the manager of an independent team called the Goyang Wonders, is seen as a front-runner, though Kim himself has stated he has no intention of returning to the KBO.

Kim last managed the SK Wyverns in the KBO in 2011. He has won three KBO championships, all with SK, and boasts a strong track record of guiding underachieving clubs to the playoffs.

Lee Suk-chae, KT's chairman, said the manager and coaches will be named in due course.

"I am not an expert in sports, but I have ordered a team of our researchers to look into how to best appoint coaches and managers," Lee said. "I've heard talks about Kim Sung-keun, but we will first have to look at findings of our ongoing study."

Baseball's popularity has skyrocketed since the Unicorns' demise. The KBO, which started in 1982, has broken its own single-season attendance record in each of the past four seasons and drew nearly 7.2 million fans last year. Also in 2012, the KBO posted a record 35 billion won in baseball-related revenue from television contracts, corporate sponsorships and merchandise sales.

The spectacular turnaround has been attributed to South Korea's success at international events -- winning the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and taking second place at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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