Following a successful flattening of the curve in terms of the spread of COVID-19, the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) became one of the first professional-level sport leagues to start its season in early. With limited programming available due to various sports cancellations and postponements, ESPN made the decision to broadcast the Korean baseball games. With this in mind, the perspective of a practitioner in Korean baseball could be valuable for numerous sport experts in other countries. Hence, an interview with Kwon Heo, a public relations (PR) manager with the Kia Tigers, was conducted. Heo entered the sport industry as a reporter for Gwangju daily newspapers from 1995 to 2001. Since 2002, he has been working as the head of PR for the Tigers. The Kia Tigers are the most successful professional baseball team in Korea, with 11 Korean series titles, and Kwon is responsible for the overall planning and promotion of the franchise. He also earned a doctorate in sports marketing from Mokpo National University in 2013, and since 2009 he has been teaching sports promotion, sports media, and sports marketing to students as a part-time lecturer at Mokpo National University in order to deliver his field experiences to students. He has also been in charge of conducting lectures regarding the training of sports industry personnel at universities near the region (e.g., Chosun University and Sunchon University).
Another thing that changed due to COVID-19 is fan service. As a precaution, we are planning to conduct games without spectators. Also, any promotional event in which contact between players and fans would occur at close range, such as a meet and greet, has been banned. Importantly, there have also been various changes in the lives of our players. When entering public spaces such as the stadium, locker room, or team transportation, players must have their temperature checked and must sanitize their hands. Hygiene management, which is a new task for us, has also been strengthened, making players and their families refrain from going out. It is extremely hard for our staff and players to be restrained from social activities for months.
We also changed our seating arrangements in a zigzag way in the team cafeteria and meeting room. After-game dinners have also been banned to comply with national social distancing policies. The work environment for the team staff has been changed as well. The employees have been distributed into three different offices to prepare for any emergency. Particularly for the players, some actions on the field, such as high-fives with bare hands, spitting, and chewing tobacco and sunflower seeds, have been banned. The whole typical baseball scene has been changed due to the current situation with COVID-19.
Again, one of the hardest parts for us is the changed schedule. The players are exhausted from several months of training, and the staff is also tired from spending all of their days preparing for the upcoming season. Even if the season starts, it would be really hard to play ball games without hearing the cheering of the crowd.
In terms of team management, there is no revenue from multiple sources, such as ticket sales. Operating costs, however, have increased due to preventive measures against COVID-19. What is more concerning is that bigger problems may arise when the no-audience restriction is lifted. Although we are thoroughly managing the prevention of epidemics and players are going through COVID-19 prevention education, we are still worried about the possibility of infections at the stadium. The league may face an indefinite shutdown if even one confirmed COVID-19 case occurs at any baseball park.
We now actively produce and distribute promotional digital content, such as video clips, so that fans can access to them in their homes. Every press release, official statement, or promotional information is distributed via digital media platforms. In addition, through numerous online media channels owned by the franchise, we aim to create various types of novel content, such as card news or infographics. Sport PR channels have recently been changed from traditional media to digital media owned by the team, such as the official Tigers YouTube channel or social media accounts, and COVID-19 has actually accelerated this change.
I believe that these channels allow us to get closer to our fans. Feedback comes right away and direct communication with fans also has become possible. It is very effective in terms of the promotion and marketing of the team. By sharing diverse team-related information, we can increase fan loyalty and maintain a lasting consumer–brand relationship. Our team currently operates diverse media platforms, including the team’s website, blogs, chatting apps, social media platforms, and video channels. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the amount of content that the team uploads, as well as the number of views, has drastically increased.
For this year, all the KBO franchises agreed to broadcast exhibition games on YouTube for fans who were thirsty for baseball. It was also planned in order to satisfy fans who were not able to come to stadiums due to required social distancing. In order to strengthen the fan experience with the YouTube broadcast, our manager Matt Williams, pitching coach Jae-Weong Seo, hitting coach Hee-Seop Choi, and defensive coach Min-Ho Kim appeared as daily commentators. Moreover, our star players, team scouts, and staff also participated, sitting at the broadcasting booth to directly answer questions from fans and communicate with them in real time. This has drawn extremely positive responses from our fans.
The KBO has developed an integrated COVID-19 response manual following the government-issued policies. By using this manual, the PR team of each franchise develops its own PR plans. For instance, any reporter who enters the stadium will go through a temperature check and must wear a face mask. They also have to set a safety distance of at least 2 m from the interviewer during interviews. These policies are all made based on the government-provided manual for COVID-19. All KBO teams have agreed to these guidelines and have actively responded in order to prevent any infection in the Korean baseball community.