Will The KBO Become The Sports Sensation of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

The disruption of the sports world by the COVID-19 pandemic has been nearly total. All of the world’s major competitive leagues have been left scrambling for any solution that would allow them to finish out their seasons in the year 2020, something that in almost any scenario would force them to play without fans in attendance. Sports networks such as ESPN have had to rely exclusively on old games and matches (or docuseries that had been already filmed and produced, such as ESPN’s upcoming Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance)to provide their audiences with anything close to the content they have become accustomed to.

However, there have been a few places on the global sports landscape that have managed to carry on, in one fashion or another, in the face of the obstacles that have been caused by the pandemic. Predictably, these are located in the countries that have been global models for an ideal response to the pandemic. These are the countries of Taiwan and South Korea, which happen to be some of the biggest hotbeds of “America’s pastime,” baseball, outside of the United States itself.

Taiwan’s baseball league has, improbably, been able to start it’s season (although without fans in stadiums of course), and some sections of American sports media have begun to catch on, publishing articles directing their fans to find English-language broadcasting of live games, which the Taiwanese sports network Eleven Sports has now provided in an attempt to draw the attention of a sports-starved English language audience.

Historically, however, the Taiwanese baseball league has been low profile to American baseball fans even by the low standards of international baseball leagues. Korea’s KBO and Japan’s NPB have a higher profile with fans, due to the fact that there is a greater flow of players between the two leagues. Not only have players come over from those leagues and become stars in Major League Baseball.

Players such as Hyun-Jin Ryu, Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and others have come over across the Pacific successfully and contended for Cy Young Awards and MVPs, even winning an MVP in the case of Ichiro Suzuki, who won MLB’s highest honor in 2001. Conversely, the KBO and NPB have become havens for American players looking to continue or revive their career.

Some players with failed early MLB career have recently transitioned back from those leagues to succeed again in MLB, such as Ryan Vogelsong of the San Francisco Giants (who played in the NPB for several years), or Eric Thames of the Washington Nationals, who successfully came back to the United States after spending time with the NC Dinos of the KBO.

Most recently, five time MLB All Star Adam Jones signed with an NPB team this past offseason, dissatisfied with his contract offers in the United States. He hopes to perform well enough in the NPB over the course of his two year deal to earn a new Major League Baseball contract, one more to his satisfaction.

Another interesting use of the NPB as a leverage tool for American took place after the 2018 MLB Draft. Top prospect Carter Stewart was selected eight overall by the Atlanta Braves, but was dissatisfied with their signing bonus. So he left the Braves behind and signed a deal with the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks of NPB. If he plays well throughout his contract with the Hawks, Stewart could sign with an MLB team as a free agent at the age of twenty-five, several years younger than most MLB free agents. This would enable him to get more money and years in any deal, maximize his earning power in a way that a player has not yet done in MLB.

The KBO would, in theory, be a more attractive option for American broadcasters than the NPB for this very reason- American players on teams would be an easy sell for English-language audiences. The NPB has even more such players than the KBO, but Japan’s league is not on the same track as its Korean counterpart. The KBO is on track to start in early May, but the NPB has yet to issue a return date, although it will not be until at least June.

Realizing the potential opportunity that the return of the KBO has presented, ESPN has begun discussions with the KBO to broadcast their games in English. Talks received a boost when the Korean Prime Minister Chung Sye-Kun confirmed in a statement that live sports could plausibly begin in the country without fans present.

There are a number of potential roadblocks to any deal between the KBO and ESPN. One logistical hurdle is that it under the current global travel conditions, it would be implausible, if not impossible, for ESPN to send broadcasters to Korea to call games live, as sporting events are usually announced.

Announcers would have to announce games off a live feed broadcast in a television studio in the United States, which could create for an awkward television viewing experience. ESPN may also want to hold off on making a potentially risky investment at a time when their major cash flow generators, such as the NBA and Monday Night Football, have uncertain futures themselves, to say nothing of how the company may be affected by the broader negative trends in the economy, from which no one is exempt.

Indeed, as of now the talks between ESPN and the KBO have been described as more of a “passing interest” than anything serious. If an English language viewer would like to catch KBO games, the best option may turn out to be hoping that a local Korean broadcaster creates an English language broadcast that can be viewed over the internet, just as happened with the Taiwanese league. As much as the prospect of live sports being back on American networks might thrill American sports fans, they may unfortunately have to wait a little while longer until that can happen.