SEOUL (Reuters) - Scantily-clad cheerleaders gyrating to corporate theme songs at South Korea’s professional baseball championship series are a far cry from the Christian missionaries who introduced the game to the country a century ago.
The Korean Series finished at the weekend with a dramatic walk-off home run in the deciding game seven that gave the Kia Tigers, owned by the carmaker, their 10th title.
They beat the SK Wyverns, owned by a leading mobile phone operator, and the series itself is almost as much about advertising as about who sits top of the local baseball world.
The South Korean professional league, the playground for the country’s corporate giants, has only been around since 1982 and is a mere babe compared to the major leagues in the U.S. and Japan’s professional league.
But the sport in South Korea has borrowed a little from both, exported some of its best players and developed its own style of play that has led to shining performances at the Olympics and World Baseball Classic.
It has also had its unique moments, such as a ban on cabbages on the field after a player in 2005 was found stuffing his cap with frozen leaves to cool off on hot summer days.
Financially, the owners of the eight professional teams in South Korea barely break even.
Most lose money on teams that serve as a better way to advertise products than earn revenue through tickets sales and selling TV broadcasting rights.
“Our baseball team is not being run for a profit,” SK Wyverns officials said in response to questions sent by email.
“Sports marketing is one of the best ways to publicize the business operations without stirring a backlash by consumers.”
Ownership for most teams has changed several times as business fortunes wane and companies get out of baseball to stop hemorrhaging red ink on their balance sheets.
But champions Kia, based in southwestern Gwangju, can boast a line-up that features Choi Hee-seop, formerly with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Runners-up SK, from Incheon west of Seoul, have great young talents, including Choi Jeong, a prodigy at third base who was the MVP of the 2008 Korean Series.
Stadiums, however, are mostly utilitarian affairs with the biggest seating about 30,000. Cheerleaders’ platforms built into fan seating are standard.
So too are youths snapping pictures of the leggy ladies and drunken old men staggering in the stands.
All of this can be seen as fitting for a league set up by autocratic President Chun Doo Hwan as a way to divert the attention of the masses from abuses committed by his government.
Chun, who ruled from 1980-88, launched what was dubbed the “3-S Policy” of sex, sports and screen where he tried to tame the urge for democracy through ribald entertainment, a revamped movie industry and a new baseball league.
“Everyone back then was absorbed in the struggle to bring democracy to the country but there were limitations on how they could express their pent-up emotions,” said Choi Jin, a specialist on the South Korean presidency.
The league has become South Korea’s most-watched professional sport on a regular basis though the country becomes swept up in national soccer fever in World Cup years.
South Korea’s baseball success on the world stage, which includes a gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and runner-up spot at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, has boosted attendances.
But the quality of play overall suffers because it does not have a farm system or strong college league where players can hone their skills before turning pro.
The top-paid Korean players in the local league make about 700 million won ($590,000) a year, a modest sum compared to the average salary in the U.S. of over $3 million or in Japan where salaries can easily top $1 million a year.
Rookies in South Korea take home only about $17,000 but at the other end of the scale the elite have an added incentive to do well in international play.
Strong performances are often rewarded with exemption from the mandatory two years of military service.
Editing by Dave Thompson