By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Jan. 26 (Yonhap) -- The SK Wyverns are far from being the first South Korean baseball club to be sold, but their impending ownership change, from the mobile carrier SK Telecom to the retail giant E-Mart under Shinsegae Group, comes as a surprise for different reasons.
SK Telecom is selling the team even though it has no financial hardships to speak of. The company has yet to specify exactly why it's shedding itself of the Wyverns, but the belief across the league is that SK Telecom must have decided running a baseball team was no longer worth the trouble.
If that's indeed the case, it would be a departure from the long-held way of business in the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), where corporate owners have held on to their clubs despite bleeding money for reasons that transcended the bottom lines.
Since the league's inception in 1982, conglomerates such as Samsung and Lotte, and later LG and Doosan among others, have viewed getting their names attached to KBO clubs as a marketing tool. They also see running a baseball team as a way of giving back to their local communities, and they use the popularity of pro baseball to create positive momentum behind other business projects.
In some cases, the baseball club has become the face of its parent corporation. Thanks to their recent run of success, the Bears are synonymous with Doosan Group. For all of its ongoing financial hardships, Doosan has been reluctant to sell off the baseball club. Doing so would have sent a message across the industry that Doosan's struggles were such that it couldn't even afford to run a baseball team.
SK, on the other hand, has made a cold business decision.
Most of previous team sales in the KBO were necessitated by money problems, with the city of Incheon, the current home of the Wyverns, experiencing multiple changes in the 1980s.
The Sammi Superstars, one of the original clubs from the 1982 season, were sold off and became the Chungbo Pintos in 1985. But two years later, they were sold to the cosmetics manufacturer Taepyungyang and became the Dolphins.
Hyundai Group took over Taepyungyang and the baseball club turned into the Unicorns. The Unicorns folded under some financial issues, and the team relocated to Seoul to become what is now the Kiwoom Heroes in 2008.
The Wyverns themselves joined the KBO in 2000 by taking over from a struggling club, as they replaced Ssangbangwool Raiders in 2000. In 2001, the team that started out as the Haitai Tigers became the Kia Tigers, with the confectionery company giving way to the automaker.
In one exception where money wasn't the direct cause, the broadcaster MBC sold the Blue Dragons in 1990 to LG Group, which then changed the club to the Twins. MBC shed the baseball team in the name of journalistic integrity and transparency.
Now that SK has set a precedent, other companies may be tempted to follow suit. The coronavirus pandemic, which kept fans away from KBO games for most of the 2020 season and reduced gate receipts to a minimum, may even give those companies an out if they want to cite reasons for selling their ball club.
E-Mart's stated objective of turning the baseball stadium into a "lifestyle center," where fans can watch a ball game and enjoy other services from the retailer, could present new possibilities in KBO marketing.
Shinsegae Group Vice Chairman Chung Yong-jin is known as a baseball fan. And SK Telecom said in its own statement that, during its negotiations with Shinsegae, it was able to sense Shinsegae's passion for baseball and its determination to make things work.
"We both agreed that the retailer company, which is always in close connection with consumers, can provide people with added value by working with a professional baseball club," SK Telecom noted. "We believe Shinsegae Group, as a lifestyle designing corporation, will provide baseball fans with an entirely new experience, and that it will also inherit the proud baseball tradition of the SK Wyverns with aggressive investments and player development."
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