After a year of mounting tension between the Koreas, during which a nuclear confrontation became thinkable, what a relief when they began talking to each other — and got along so well that last week the South conveyed the North’s invitation to meet with our president.
Encouraging as that’s been, however, I seriously doubt South and North Korea will reunite.
And no, not because of their completely different political and economic systems, or because Trump will screw things up (if anything, his administration has dealt better with the obstreperous North than the previous two administrations).
It’s because of baseball.
I received my annual copy of The Baseball Prospectus a couple of weeks ago. Tucked away near the end of the 600-page tome is an article about the Korea Baseball Organization, or KBO. Founded in 1981 with six teams, it has since grown to a ten-team league and has propelled baseball past soccer as the South’s favorite sport. And unlike the US, where the audience for baseball skews older, South Korea’s fan base skews younger — and more female. The KBO claims that women make up 43% of league attendance, and that nearly a quarter of its overall attendance consists of women in their twenties.
What the National and American Leagues in the US wouldn’t do for a demographic like that!
South Korea’s population is a little over 50 million. The KBO drew 8.4 million fans in 2017, meaning the national attendance ratio was about 17%. The US has a population of about 325 million, and last year Major League Baseball drew more than 72 million fans, for an attendance ratio of 22%. So for now, we’re ahead. But attendance was down nearly half a million in the US from 2016, whereas in South Korea, last year’s 8.4 million mark was an all-time high. And given the age difference between the fan bases, we can expect South Korea to continue closing the gap.
So America’s Pastime is doing better in South Korea than it is at home. And that’s trouble, because North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, doesn’t care for baseball.
He’s a basketball fan.
The New York Times reports that when Kim was a student in Switzerland, he was an enthusiastic basketball player and fan, and bought multiple pairs of Nike shoes. This helps explain Kim’s otherwise inexplicable friendship with ultra-flamboyant Dennis Rodman, the former NBA star.
I can see the two Koreas resolving most of their differences in an effort to put their traumatic twentieth century behind them. But when it comes to which American sport their unified country will adopt as its favorite, I don’t know. Maybe the missiles will fly after all.
(On the very off chance you’re interested in Korean baseball, I suggest starting at http://eng.koreabaseball.com/.)