The KBO Is All in for 2017
South Korea’s KBO teams have been spending dramatically more money on free agents and foreign players this off-season than they did even a year ago. I suspect the surge in investment is connected directly to the 2017 World Baseball Classic to be played in March, some of which games will be played in Seoul, South Korea.
Professional baseball in South Korea is heavily dependent on the national team’s showing in the World Baseball Classic to generate future attendance increases. In 2009, South Korea surprised the world with a strong second place finish in that year’s WBC, and KBO attendance surged starting with the 2009 regular season.
In 2013, South Korea was surprisingly knocked out of the WBC in the first round (three of the four teams in their initial pool went 2-1 with the South Korean team having the worst runs scored/runs allowed differential and thus failing to move on the second round). KBO attendance dropped dramatically in 2013, and has only just in 2016 caught up to where it was before the national team’s ignominious 2013 WBC performance.
With Pool A’s games being played in South Korea, the South Korean baseball world is expecting the home team to have an advantage. If the national team makes the final game again, I would expect KBO attendance to surge in 2017. Anything less than a top four finish, however, it’s likely that KBO 2017 attendance will be down from 2016.
Right now, it’s looking like some of South Korea’s best players won’t be playing in this year’s WBC. Jung-ho Kang is off the national team after being arrested recently on his third drunk driving charge. Shin-soo Choo will miss the WBC because of injury concerns of his MLB team, the Texas Rangers. Top starter Kwang-hyun Kim had or is going to have elbow surgery this month.
Needless to say, every national team has to deal with injuries to one degree or another. However, with as much as the KBO has riding on this WBC, not to mention South Korea in general, the loss of any of South Korea’s top players has to be cause for consternation.
Japanese baseball fandom also puts a great deal of weight on their national team’s performance in international events. I expect that a Championship performance, or, conversely, a disappointing performance in the WBC has a discernable effect on NPB attendance. However, I very much doubt that the effect is anywhere near as dramatic as in the KBO.
NPB has roughly 50 years of history on the KBO, which only started play in 1982. I, therefore, suspect both that NPB teams have solid fan bases and fans sophisticated enough to realize that performance in as small a sample size as the WBC doesn’t really prove much of anything, at least when Japan’s team doesn’t win.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., the average baseball fan doesn’t spend much time thinking about the World Baseball Classic one way or another. We have MLB, the undisputed world’s best baseball league, and most MLB stars don’t even play in the WBC because their major teams don’t want their players getting hurt in what MLB considers mere exhibition games.
As a die-hard baseball fan, I find the WBC interesting in terms of which teams perform well each go ’round, and I’m sure it would be interesting to attend individual games, particularly if you can see Asian stars we don’t see much of in the U.S. However, I don’t put much stock in what amounts to a series of one-game series to determine the alleged “world’s best” national team.