KBO clubs struggling at gates in early weeks of new season

SEOUL-- When former Los Angeles Dodgers star Yasiel Puig launched his first grand slam for his new South Korean team Kiwoom Heroes on Tuesday, only 774 people were in attendance. Just a handful of people were in the vicinity when Puig's home run ball landed in the second row in left-center field at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul.

That was the smallest crowd at a Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) game in nearly 10 years, and certainly not a misprint.

The Heroes hosted the NC Dinos for a Tuesday-Thursday series at the 16,200-seat venue. The second game only did slightly better with 893 fans, and the attendance peaked with 1,020 fans in the series finale on Thursday.

An average of about 896 fans watched the Heroes sweep the series and stretch their winning streak to six games.

The KBO spent most of the past two seasons playing without any fans in the stands, due to effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. And during a few stretches when fans were allowed back at ball games, crowds were capped -- at 70 percent in some places and 50 percent or less at others. In a heavily gate-driven league, teams took substantial blows to their bottom lines.

The attendance in the KBO had been in slight decline prior to the outbreak of the virus. The annual figure peaked at a record-high 8.4 million in 2017 before dropping to just over 8 million in 2018 and then to 7.2 million in 2019. However, by attendance numbers, television ratings and online streaming numbers, the KBO remained at the top of the pecking order among South Korean professional sports leagues.

And with stadiums operating back at full capacity without restrictions from the start of this season, the league and its 10 clubs were cautiously optimistic that they could inch back toward their glory days.

It appears as though they will have to wait a little while longer.

The Heroes' inability to fill seats is hardly new. They have been consistently one of the worst draws in the KBO. They moved into the dome in 2016 and averaged 10,863 fans per home game that season, but it fell to 6,304 in 2019, the worst home attendance in the league. They ranked ninth in that category in 2018 and seventh in 2017. The remote location of the dome at the western end of Seoul, along with frequent traffic jams in the area and lack of parking for fans, have been cited as issues keeping spectators away.

Dinos' fans have never traveled well, and they haven't done all that well at home, either, despite having been a steady contender since their inaugural season in 2013. They have yet to average over 10,000 fans at home.

Pit these two teams against each other in a midweek series in just the second full week of the season, while tens of thousands of people are still testing positive for COVID-19 and baseball remains low on the list of priorities?

That's a recipe for disaster at the gates.

A Heroes' official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Friday there is "a complex set of reasons" why his club has had trouble drawing fans.

"I think people are still concerned about contracting the virus in a crowded place," the official said. "And fans at our stadium can't eat or drink from their seats. I think that's huge."

Gocheok is the only KBO stadium where fans are still banned from eating and drinking in the comfort of their seats. Because it's a domed venue without a retractable roof, Gocheok is categorized as an indoor facility, unlike other, open-air ballparks. Fans must consume their food and drinks at designated concession tables in the concourse. That takes away an essential element of a typical KBO gameday experience -- eating the Korean ballpark staple of fried chicken and washing it down with a beer or two.

Fans at Gocheok for the season's first two games on April 2 and 3 had been allowed to eat from their seats, just as in all the other stadiums, before the national health authorities did an about-face and forced fans back out to the concourse starting on April 5.

The team official was hopeful that attendance numbers will bounce back, now that the government has lifted virus-related restrictions, save for the indoor mask mandate.

Eating and drinking at indoor sporting venues will be permitted again starting on April 25.

To try to put more fans in the seats now that restrictions have been lifted, the Heroes plan to hold autograph signing events before upcoming home games.

"The biggest problem is players have not been able to connect with fans (because of social distancing rules)," the team official said. "We will adjust practice times to have the players meet fans and sign autographs."

Attendance problems aren't the Heroes' alone. Not a single KBO game has been a sellout this season.

In 2019, the most recent normal season, the LG Twins, the Doosan Bears and the SSG Landers averaged over 10,000 fans. Four others sat in the 9,000 range. The Hanwha Eagles, the Dinos and the Heroes brought up the rear at around 6,000 to 7,000 per home game.

So far this season, the Landers are leading the way with an average of 18,156 fans after three home games. But the Bears have averaged under 8,000 after five home games and the Twins have had about 9,200 on average after a half-dozen games at home.

The KT Wiz, the defending Korean Series champions, had 17,057 fans on Opening Day on April 2, the largest crowd that day. It was an encouraging number for a club that had never averaged more than 10,000 since their inception in 2015. The second game saw just over 10,000 fans, but the Wiz then got 11,370 fans over their next five home games combined at KT Wiz Park in Suwon, some 45 kilometers south of Seoul.

The Dinos are playing at perhaps the most impressive stadium in the KBO, Changwon NC Park in Changwon, 400 kilometers southeast of Seoul, but they have averaged a shade under 4,500 fans there so far.

The Wiz and the Dinos, the two youngest franchises in the KBO that have had trouble at the gates, have introduced cheaper ticket options for this season.

The Dinos are letting artificial intelligence named "Dynamic Pricing" set prices for all home games. The system, in use by some major league clubs, determines the cost of tickets based on the seat location, weather, day of the week and starting pitching matchup. An outfield seat for last Tuesday's game against the Lotte Giants went for just 1,800 won (US$1.46).

The Wiz are offering 50 percent off on tickets to all weekday home games purchased at the stadium box office after 8 p.m., or 90 minutes after the first pitch. Fans can also enter a lucky draw by submitting their business cards, and winners will receive tickets to the luxury box at KT Wiz Stadium.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Source: Yonhap News Agency