As he takes over a league at a crossroads amid declining fan interest and television ratings, Heo Koo-youn, new commissioner of the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), sees himself as a relief pitcher entering a close game in late innings.
“I feel like a reliever taking the mound with one out and bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning,” Heo said at his inaugural press conference at the KBO headquarters in Seoul on Tuesday. “But I am not afraid. This is a difficult job for anyone, but I am prepared to make the most of this opportunity to turn things around for the KBO.”
Heo, 71, was formally elected the new commissioner last Friday, thanks to unanimous support from owners of the league’s 10 clubs. Heo is the first former player to serve as the league commissioner, though he has been better known as a TV color commentator. The commissioner position had been previously filled by politicians and corporate executives.
The commissioner’s term is typically three years, but Heo will only serve until Dec. 31, 2023, covering the remainder of the term for his predecessor, Chung Ji-taik. Chung abruptly resigned last month, just over a year into his tenure, citing health problems.
With fans kept outside the stadium for most of the past two seasons due to COVID-19 restrictions, the KBO has seen fans’ interest level drop and TV viewership and streaming numbers fall, too.
To turn the tide, Heo said he will call on players and teams to reach out to their fans and put them above all else.
In particular, the KBO will try to reach out to “Generation MZ,” covering millennials and Generation Z.
“We will create a new committee dedicated to serving fans in the MZ generation,” Heo said. “We will make sure they have a lot to look forward to when they’re watching baseball games. There will be some exciting players to watch this year, and we have to pounce on this opportunity to win back fans.”
Heo said a key step should be to ease restrictions on social media and allow fans to create their own GIFs and memes. Spreading short, easily digestible clips of key plays or bloopers on social media can be one way for the KBO to generate more interest among digital-savvy people.
“Unless we remove those regulations, it’s going to be difficult to attract new fans,” Heo acknowledged. “Young people today won’t sit around and watch baseball games for three hours. We’ve come to this point because people couldn’t see the future and they lacked expertise (in social media and in marketing to a younger generation). We’ll do whatever it takes to help bring young people closer to baseball.”
Heo said a string of poor showings by the South Korean national baseball team had also contributed to the waning interest in the sport. He said he will schedule international games to address the issue.
“If we take a serious look at ourselves in the mirror, we really haven’t done anything since (winning the gold medal) at the Beijing Olympics (in 2008),” Heo said. “I think we have been too drunk with that success to see the true picture. By playing other countries more often, our players have to see for themselves exactly where they stand and how much work they have to do.”
Heo’s playing days came before the founding of the KBO in 1982. He worked as a television color commentator in the early days of professional baseball in the country before moving on to managerial and coaching positions later in the decade. He then spent the 1990 season as a minor league roving instructor for the Toronto Blue Jays and returned to the TV booth in 1991.
Heo has spent the past three decades as one of the most recognizable voices in South Korean baseball. He has also been pushing hard for improvements in baseball infrastructure across the country, especially in regions outside the greater capital area.
At the end of his presser, Heo was asked to briefly put his commentator hat back on and offer his prognostication for the upcoming season, which begins Saturday.
Heo once said he’d always wanted to be Vin Scully, a longtime Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster who called major league games for 67 seasons, and not Bud Selig, a former major league commissioner. Heo referenced those two names again Tuesday before offering, “There will be so many factors in play this year, and it’ll be difficult to predict how things will play out.”
Source: Yonhap News Agency