(ATTN: UPDATES with latest figures in para 4, ADDS photo)
By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, May 2 (Yonhap) -- Professional baseball in South Korea isn't about to lose its crown as the national pastime anytime soon, but recent attendance figures for the country's top league have nonetheless been a cause for concern.
On Monday this week, the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) released some not-so-rosy numbers. Through 92 games this season, the nine KBO teams were averaging about 10,380 fans per game, compared to 12,600 fans per game over the same period last year.
The KBO surpassed 1 million fans for the season on Wednesday after 100 games have been played, the slowest pace in five seasons. In comparison, the league needed only a record 65 games to reach the 1 million mark in 2012.
Through Wednesday, 1.05 million fans have gone to KBO games, down about 16 percent after 100 games in 2012.
Except for the NC Dinos, the expansion team playing in their inaugural KBO season in 2013, seven of eight teams have seen their home attendance fall on-year. Even the Kia Tigers, the only club to enjoy an uptick in home attendance, are averaging only 5 percent more fans than a year ago.
Pro baseball's popularity reached an unprecedented height in 2012 as the KBO drew a record 7.15 million fans. It was the fourth straight season in which the KBO, founded in 1982, broke its own single-season attendance record.
Prior to this season, the teams had set out to attract even more fans this year -- 7.54 million to be exact. At this rate, however, the clubs will be lucky to even reach 7 million.
Team and league officials, along with analysts, point to unseasonably chilly weather as a major factor that has left seats empty. According to the Korea Meteorological Administration, South Korea experienced its coldest April in 17 years, with an average temperature of 9.31 degrees Celsius (48.8 degrees Fahrenheit). That's almost 2 degrees Celsius colder than April last year.
Some sloppy play on the field has also been blamed for keeping away fans. In the 92 games this year, played through last Sunday, teams committed 133 errors. Over the first 90 games in 2012, they had 95 errors combined.
Slow starts by the league's two bottom feeders have also created a chasm between the top tier and the bottom portion.
The struggles of the Dinos, though disappointing, have been somewhat anticipated. The Dinos, mostly featuring castoffs from incumbent clubs and unheralded rookies out of high school or college, lost their first seven games in a row before earning their maiden win.
The Hanwha Eagles began the season by losing 13 games in a row, the KBO record for the longest slide to start a season. Through Wednesday, the Dinos and the Eagles have the identitical record, with five wins 17 losses and one tie, at the bottom of the standings.
Officials and analysts, however, said that both the attendance figures and the quality of play will improve as the mercury rises.
Ryu Dae-hwan, head of public relations for the KBO, acknowledged that it will be difficult for the league to match last year's total attendance figures, let alone surpass them as the teams had set out to do.
"I know this sounds like an excuse, but teams may feel that their players haven't entirely warmed up because of the weather," Ryu said. "I think there have been many different reasons for such poor attendance so far. Obviously, Hanwha and NC haven't played well. Relief pitching as a whole has left much to be desired. But as the weather gets better, true baseball fans will eventually start coming to the ballparks."
Ha Il-sung, one-time secretary general for the KBO and now back in his old job as a television commentator, noted that the KBO has lost some main attractions during the offseason.
Left-handed pitcher Ryu Hyun-jin, one of the KBO's most dominant starters since his debut in 2006, bolted from the Eagles to join the Los Angeles Dodgers in Major League Baseball in December. Park Chan-ho, the former MLB veteran and teammate of Ryu's on Hanwha in 2012, retired in November last year.
Some other big names returned home in 2012 after stints in overseas leagues. One-time MLB All-Star Kim Byung-hyun signed with the Nexen Heroes. Lee Seung-yeop, who owns the KBO's single-season record with 56 homers, rejoined the Samsung Lions in 2012 after eight seasons in Japan.
In the offseason before 2013, however, there were no such household names making headlines.
According to Ha, it hasn't helped the KBO that Ryu and other South Koreans overseas are off to an excellent start to their seasons. Ryu is 3-1 with a solid 3.35 ERA, and is tied for fourth in the National League with 46 strikeouts in 37 2/3 innings. Choo Shin-soo, center fielder and leadoff hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, is among the National League leaders in hits, runs scored, batting average and on-base percentage.
In Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Lee Dae-ho of the Orix Buffaloes, a former KBO MVP for the Lotte Giants, is near the top in the Pacific League in batting average, home runs and runs batted in, among other categories.
"For fans, the KBO hasn't been very compelling so far," Ha said. "Baseball fans are paying more attention to players like Ryu Hyun-jin, Choo Shin-soo and Lee Dae-ho. They're almost always on the front page of the sports newspapers, not KBO players."
Having an odd number of teams has given the KBO some scheduling headaches. Monday is the common off day for all clubs. For the rest of the week, eight teams are in action from Tuesday to Thursday for the midweek series, and from Friday to Sunday for the weekend sets. That leaves at least one team off the field on any given day, either from Monday to Thursday or from Friday to Monday.
Ha pointed to such quirky scheduling as a big reason for the drop in attendance.
"If the league had an even number of teams, every team would be playing at the same time and you would see changes to the standings almost daily," Ha said. "But from fans' perspective, if their favorite team is not playing for three or four days in a row, they're bound to lose interest."
Fans in Busan, arguably the most passionate baseball city in the country, also appear to have lost interest in their team, the Lotte Giants.
Of the teams that have lost home fans this year, the Giants' struggle at the box office has been quite pronounced. They have been the KBO's biggest draw in each of the past five seasons. The Giants are also the first KBO club to host more than 1 million home fans in five consecutive seasons, doing so from 2008 to 2012.
The streak is in jeopardy this year, however, as the Giants have only averaged about 13,000 fans at home so far in nine home games, compared to almost 21,300 from a year ago.
The Giants have yet to sell out their 28,000-seats of Sajik Stadium this year. On March 30, they failed to pack Sajik for the home opener for the first time since 2006.
Bae Jae-hoo, the Giants' general manager, has blamed everything from lethargic local tourism to cherry blossom sightings in neighboring towns that distracted baseball fans.
"Things come and go in cycles, and pro baseball is no exception," he said. "I think the bubble is bursting somewhat in baseball, largely because of the economic downturn that we've had since the latter half of last year."
Ryu, the KBO official, said the league has for years relied too heavily on Lotte and its enthusiastic Busan fans to set the attendance record. That will have to change for the sake of balanced development, Ryu added, especially with a 10th team set to join the KBO in 2015.
"Eventually, it'd be ideal to have all 10 clubs on the similar plateau in terms of attendance," Ryu said. "It's important to keep fans coming for the short term, but we're also concerned about the mid- to long-term future of professional baseball as an industry."
Ha, the TV analyst, was optimistic that the KBO teams will in the end reach their preseason goal of hosting 7.54 million fans.
"I think Hanwha and NC will play better baseball down the road, if they get some currently injured players back in the lineup," he said. "Pitchers and fielders just haven't loosened up yet. Just watch. I think we will see many more fans from here on out."
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