Until the mid-1990s, basketball was one of the most popular sports in South Korea. The popularity of basketball skyrocketed in 1994 when the youth drama “The Last Game,” which was based on the theme of basketball, became a hit with over 40% of the viewers, and the cartoon “Slam Dunk,” which is considered a masterpiece, became popular. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Chicago Bulls, a “superteam” consisting of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman, gained global attention.
Unemployment team games drew huge crowds to see the then-college sensation. College teams were even more popular. This was especially true for Korea University with Jeon Hee-chul, Hyun Ju-yup, and Kim Byung-chul, and Yonsei University with Moon Moon-eun, Lee Sang-min, and Woo Ji-won. The college players were treated like celebrities as they showed off their skills against their unemployed brothers.
The explosive popularity of unemployed basketball naturally led to the creation of a professional league. Professionalization, which had been discussed but stalled since the early 1990s, was pushed forward in unison by the fan base.
Professional basketball is on the rise
Professional basketball began with the 1997 season. There were eight teams in the league: Busan Kia, Anyang SBS, Wonju Narae, 안전놀이터 Daegu Dongyang, Gwangju Nasan, Incheon Daewoo Securities, Daejeon Hyundai, and Suwon Samsung. On February 1 of that year, the first game was played between SBS, the parent company of the broadcasting company, and Daewoo Securities, the star group, and the league finished its first season with 21 games per team. At that point, 400,000 spectators attended basketball games, and two more teams were created for the new season. In the 1997-1998 season, the schedule was greatly expanded to include 10 teams with 45 games per team.
The popularity of professional basketball never waned, and by the 2001-2002 season, its sixth year of existence, attendance had surpassed one million. As interest in the sport grew, so did the team’s performance in international competitions. In 2002, the team of Seo Jang-hoon, Kim Joo-sung, Moon Mung-eun, Jeon Hee-chul, Hyun Joo-yup, and Lee Sang-min won the gold medal in the final of the Busan Asian Games, defeating China 102-100. At the 2014 Incheon Asian Games, the team defeated Iran 79-77 to take first place. With Kim Joo-sung at the helm, the team has been able to successfully change generations, including Oh Se-geun, Kim Jong-kyu, Moon Tae-jong, Yang Hee-jong, Yang Dong-geun, and Kim Sun-hyung, and has shown the future of Korean basketball. “In the early 2000s, it was so popular that people would check the schedule of the professional basketball playoffs in order to organize the opening schedule of the KBO,” said a basketball insider.
Faltering professional basketball and a lost administration
However, basketball’s popularity began to wane. The problem was the heavy reliance on foreign players. This was compounded by the KBL’s administrative problems. The KBL had a separate award for foreign players. As a result, the league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) was naturally awarded to a domestic player. This led to mixed opinions about the value of the MVP. Eventually, the KBL eliminated the foreign player award in the 2011-2012 season. However, the MVP award has always gone to a domestic player. In 2014-2015, when Ricardo Ratliff (Laguna) became the favorite to win the award, the foreign player award was suddenly reinstated, and from then on, the KBL awarded the MVP to the “most valuable” domestic and foreign player. With foreign players accounting for more than half of the roster, the KBL even restricted the height of foreign players to two meters. In the 2009-2010 season, the KBL had a naturalized mixed-race player system, limiting contracts to a maximum of three years, before abolishing it in the 2012-2013 season, adding to the confusion.
The increased sophistication of basketball fans has also had an impact. Thanks to media advancements, we can watch Kobe Bryant or LeBron James in action in real time. Add to that the lackluster international performance of Korean basketball teams that have not even crossed the Olympic threshold. “The NBA has overwhelming physical abilities and creates strategies and tactics to match them, so it should be seen as a different sport from Korean basketball,” said the head coach of a Korean professional basketball team. “Korean players are already at a disadvantage in terms of physicality, so there is still a limit to securing international competitiveness.”
Which team to root for
Frequent changes of affiliation are also a problem. For example, if the Daegu Dongyang left Daegu and became the Goyang Dongyang Orion, but one day the team with Incheon as its parent company switched to Daegu, it would be confusing to know which team to root for as a fan of the Daegu Dongyang.
In fact, according to the 2022 Professional Sports Visitor Propensity Survey (Propensity Survey) released by the Korea Professional Sports Association, the proportion of “high-profile fans” who owned the jerseys of their favorite teams was 50.7% and 44.0% for Anyang KGC Ginseng Corporation and Dongbu DB, respectively, but the proportion of high-profile fans of KT, which moved from Busan to Suwon, Korea Gas Corporation, which settled in Daegu, and the newly created Goyang Carot was in the low 20s.
Hometown is an important factor in attracting loyal fans. However, only 10.1% of people watch men’s basketball because they have a favorite team. Professional soccer, on the other hand, has a strong local connection, with 34.7% of fans saying they go to games because they are loyal to their team. Professional baseball also surpassed professional basketball at 26.4%.
◆Speed and immediacy appeal… Superstars remain popular
While basketball’s popularity may be waning, professional basketball still has appeal and potential. The sport’s unique speed, flamboyance, and sense of action are still present, and the superstars who represent the league are still alive and well. There are also inspiring storylines in domestic basketball that are worth watching.
According to the ‘2022 Professional Sports Visitor Propensity Survey’ on the 26th, the top reason for visiting a basketball court is to see the players in person (30.0%). This was followed by 13.1% who said that there are elements that can be enjoyed in the field, and 12.5% who said that they can feel the on-site feeling that is difficult to feel through broadcasting.
While the popularity of basketball has waned from its heyday, there is still interest in basketball stars. Brothers Heo Woong (30) of Jeonju KCC and Heo Hoon (28) of Sangmu, who are the sons of “Basketball President” Heo Jae Dayone Sports and are known for their entertainment appearances, as well as Byun Joon-hyung (27) of Sangmu and Jeon Sung-hyun (32) of Goyang Dayone, have been thrilling fans with their skills and good looks.
Heo Woong, in particular, has proven to be a popular star, receiving 144,475 votes in the last All-Star Fan Vote. This surpasses the previous record of 120,356 votes set by Lee Sang-min in the 2002-2009 season, when professional basketball was at its peak of popularity. Other stars of Korean basketball are Lee Hyun-jung (23) of the G League’s Santa Cruz Warriors and Yeo Jun-seok (21) of Gonzaga University in the United States, who are making their first foray into the NBA as non-big men. Their success in the U.S. is expected to increase the popularity of Korean basketball.
Another factor that makes us look forward to next season’s professional basketball is the storyline. After the 2022-2023 season, the free agent (FA) market was in flux. KCC added Choi Joon-yong and Song Kyo-chang to their roster, which could be considered the KBL’s version of the Dream Team.
It’s also worth noting that Kim Sun-hyung and Oh Se-geun are reuniting after 12 years together at Seoul SK. The two players, who were drafted together in college and in the professional ranks, were part of Chung-Ang University’s 52-game winning streak from 2006 to November 2008 and will be wearing the same uniform for the first time since their professional debut.
Fans awaiting the new season of basketball are focused on Anyang KGC Ginseng Corporation, which has lost its main power after winning the unified championship, Seoul Samsung, which has not been able to get out of the last place, and Day One, which is looking for a new sponsor due to the management crisis of its parent company.