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Baseball league's struggles with attendance continue in 3rd week of regular season

All Headlines 10:26 April 11, 2019

By Yoo Jee-ho

SEOUL, April 11 (Yonhap) -- Three weeks into the regular season, the attendance problems for the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) are real. Look no further than Wednesday's game between the home-team Kiwoom Heroes and the KT Wiz at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.

When teams struggled to fill seats earlier in the season, KBO's and teams' officials shrugged off the weak attendance and chalked it up to unseasonably cold weather. Once temperatures started rising, they would say, fans would start coming out on droves.

But weather doesn't seem to explain a crowd of 1,158 people at the only domed stadium in the country on Wednesday.

That game set the record for the smallest crowd at the 17,000-seat dome, which opened in 2016. The previous mark had been set Tuesday, when 1,377 people showed up.

In this file photo from April 7, 2019, fans at Gwangju-Kia Champions Field in Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, head for exits after a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game between the Kia Tigers and the Kiwoom Heroes got rained out. (Yonhap)

The KBO prides itself on being the best-attended professional sports league in the country, and the Heroes-Wiz game Wednesday was the first contest with fewer than 1,200 fans in more than five years. Compared with the same point a year ago, with 75 games played leaguewide, the average attendance has fallen by 11 percent, from 12,118 to 10,817.

Essentially, the leaguewide attendance has been declining since the opening weekend of March 23-24, when the KBO had over 100,000 fans on back-to-back days for the first time.

The Heroes, one of three clubs based in Seoul whose home park is in the west end of the capital city, have long had trouble drawing fans, regardless of their wins-and-losses record. In 2018, they were a playoff contestant after finishing fourth in the regular season, but they were ninth among 10 clubs in attendance, with an average of 6,314 fans per game.

Only the NC Dinos were behind them in 2018, but the Dinos were still playing in the 11,000-seat Masan Stadium. This year, they've moved into a spanking new Changwon NC Park, with double the number of seats. And compared with last year, the Dinos have enjoyed the biggest annual increase in attendance at 43 percent with 8,903 fans per game.

The Dinos are one of four teams to have seen their home attendance rise over the same period, but the three other teams -- Hanwha Eagles, Lotte Giants and Samsung Lions -- have only seen those figures go up by a single-digit percentage point.

For the six other clubs, home attendance has fallen by at least 10 percent. The Heroes, despite fielding a competitive team widely expected to go deep in the playoffs, have suffered the most. In their first five home games in 2018, they had 8,224 fans on average. After five home games this year, the figure has been almost halved to just under 4,200.

In this file photo from April 2, 2019, Yoo Hee-kwan of the Doosan Bears throws a pitch against the KT Wiz in the top of the first inning of a Korea Baseball Organization regular season game at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul. (Yonhap)

The Doosan Bears and the LG Twins, traditionally two of the KBO's biggest draws, who share Seoul's Jamsil Stadium as their homes, have had their attendance drop by 24 percent and 10 percent, respectively. Even the defending champions SK Wyverns are having trouble selling tickets, as their home attendance has dropped 17 percent compared with this time last year.

Prior to each season, the KBO announces the projected attendance for the year, after gathering data from its 10 clubs. This year, the target was 8.78 million fans, which would beat the all-time record set in 2017 by more than 300,000.

For all the early trouble, the KBO believes things will turn around as early as this weekend.

One league official said early season schedules for some clubs have resulted in poor attendance. She pointed out that the Heroes, whose own fans are often outnumbered by supporters for the visiting side, have yet to host so-called "big ticket" teams in the KBO, such as the Eagles, the Giants and the Twins. The Eagles, whose fans are known to travel well, will visit Gocheok Sky Dome for the first time this season Friday.

The Bears and the Twins will also meet at Jamsil for the first time in 2019 in a three-game series beginning Friday. Also, the Dinos will host the Giants, their regional rivals in southeast coast, for their first meeting at Changwon NC Park this weekend.

"We're not yet worried about the attendance yet," the official said. "I think we will turn the corner after this weekend."

jeeho@yna.co.kr
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