MLB exec hopes to see big league games in S. Korea

December 9, 2015
Chris Park, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of growth, strategy and international, gives a presentation during the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) Winter Meeting in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the KBO) (Yonhap)

Chris Park, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of growth, strategy and international, gives a presentation during the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) Winter Meeting in Seoul on Dec. 9, 2015. (Photo courtesy of the KBO) (Yonhap)

SEOUL (Yonhap) — South Korea has been one of the more successful countries in the young history of the World Baseball Classic (WBC), an international tournament jointly operated by Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). South Korea reached the semifinals in the inaugural edition in 2006 and finished second to Japan in 2009.

Given South Korea’s status in international baseball — it won the last Olympic gold medal in baseball in 2008 and won another international tournament, the Premier 12, last month — the country is perhaps due to stage a WBC game or even an MLB game in the not-so-distant future. And since WBC games are held in early March, prior to the major league regular seasons, having the new weather-proof Gocheok Sky Dome in the nation’s capital could also come in handy in chilly early spring weather.

And count Chris Park, a Korean-American MLB executive overseeing the WBC, among those hoping to see MLB games in South Korea too.

“I’d love not only to see the World Baseball Classic staged here; I’d love to see Major League Baseball games staged here,” Park told Yonhap News Agency on Wednesday in Seoul, on the sidelines of the 2015 Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) Winter Meeting. Park, MLB’s senior vice president of growth, strategy and international, gave a presentation on MLB’s growth strategy over the past two decades, following its latest work stoppage in 1994.

“The commissioner (Rob Manfred) also would love to see all of those things,” Park added. “Details about whether we can make it happen and when obviously depend a lot on things that are really outside of our control. There are other world class facilities going up in some other countries that are looking to host WBC rounds. So there’s pretty stiff competition. I’d certainly be rooting for us to be able to stage a round or some kind of a significant event here soon.”

Park, 36, said MLB has been trying to grow baseball outside the United States. There will be some WBC qualifiers played in Australia, Mexico and Panama next spring. The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Miami Marlins will play two regular seasons games in Puerto Rico in May, the first two big league contests in the country.

All of those nations have produced more than a handful of big league players, and with more and more South Koreans trying to make the jump to the majors, Park touched upon the importance of having star international players for MLB’s growth strategy.

“I think the biggest challenge for us in any market outside of the United States is to prove our relevance to markets,” he said. “The most direct way to prove our relevance is to have a star player who is already directly relevant. There’s a huge business effect in having great Korean players come over to the U.S. Kang Jung-ho (who signed with the Pirates before the 2015 season after several KBO seasons) more or less doubled the entire global TV audience for the Pirates.”

The Harvard Law School product, who’s also in charge of directing MLB’s global growth strategy and its international business initiatives, including television and sponsorship, said the key to approaching global markets is to listen to fans and devise strategies accordingly.

“We don’t think it’s smart to just impose who we are in different parts of the world,” he said. “In non-traditional places, people don’t really know about baseball. Our view is to try to do two things at once: first, to have a media strategy and to be able to distribute our games and products across communities. Two, we also want to be on the ground and be grassroots partners in not just finding great professional players but introducing boys and girls to our sport.”

Park said he had a chance to attend the Korean Series, the KBO’s version of the World Series, during his previous trip to South Korea in 2012. It was the first time he’d watched a Korean baseball game in person, and he came away impressed with loud, constant cheering and chanting, the likes of which are hardly seen at big league games.

“The experience (at a KBO game) is, in many positive ways, very different from not only MLB stadiums but almost any American sports stadiums,” he said. “There was spontaneous expression of enthusiasm from the fans. There’s a lot that we can learn from all KBO teams.”

Park added MLB may open an international office in Seoul, but he just wasn’t sure when that would happen.

“Most of our clubs are interested in Korea, not just because of players; people start to appreciate business opportunities here,” he said. “A part of our goal isn’t just to open an office here or come and exchange ideas here and there; we want to pick certain markets and become embedded as durable products. We want to be there for decades and generations. We’re more interested in figuring out different communities around the world and how we can be partners to help them for generations to come.”