Baseball games in South Korea are much more than hits, runs and outs. They’re akin to raucous rock concerts where what’s happening on the field can feel secondary to the manic energy in the stands. Fans are so immersed in their collective performance that only when a whistle signals a foul ball do many look up from doing air guitars — and duck if needed.
Cheerleaders and mascots shimmy, wave and clap alongside “cheer masters,” who guide the crowd through a player’s signature song and remind fans of the accompanying moves. The tunes typically are Korean and American hits — “Happy Together” and “Let’s Twist Again” are two of the vintage favorites — and they’re so core to the game that when cheering was banned during the coronavirus pandemic, some players complained that they struggled to focus without the noise.
Most fans don’t need any guidance, though; they already know songs and steps by heart. And they’re on their feet every inning — without any need for American baseball’s seventh-inning stretch.
“It’s obviously what jumps out, all of the passion of the fans,” said Mark Lippert, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea whose enthusiasm for Korean baseball is so well known that people ask for selfies with him at the ballpark. He preps for his favorite Doosan Bears’ cheers by watching videos. “You’ve got this really fascinating game going on, and at the same time, you have this huge concert where the players’ cheer songs are known by the fans by heart.”
The fervor at these games has deep roots.
The Korean Baseball Organization was established in 1982 by dictator Chun Doo-hwan, a military general who had seized power three years early. A bloody democratization uprising in 1980 kicked off protests challenging the new government. Chun introduced cultural reforms in an effort to turn public attention away from politics — sports was one of his diversions — and in 1982 he created the country’s pro baseball league.
The league tapped into the intense fan base at the country’s high school baseball games, where group cheering had grown popular during the 1970s as the country continued to industrialize in the wake of the Korean War. The cheers were a way for Koreans who had moved to cities for jobs and other opportunities to express their nostalgia for home, said Yongbae Jeon, a professor at the department of sports management at Dankook University in Yongin, South Korea.
Actual cheerleaders emerged in the 1980s with the introduction of sports leagues, Jeon said, and in 1990, teams started developing marketing strategies around all of it. In the early 2000s, the personalized cheers for each player began.
“Korean professional baseball is collective, passionate and dynamic. It’s also empathetic,” Jeon said. “The Korean people have a culture of ‘heung,’ which is about singing and cheering together passionately. … The cheering culture in Korea has the power to make even people who don’t like baseball enjoy baseball at the stadium.”
Kiwoom Heroes fan Yong-bin Jo said he sometimes attends their games as a stress reliever, with victory or defeat less important than being with other fans sweating it out together in the stands. But at this past Saturday’s semifinal elimination game between the Heroes and the KT Wiz, Jo wanted just one thing.
“I will do my best, give all of my power, to cheer for the players so they can win,” he said, as he and his wife helped each other put on their team jerseys outside the stadium.
At the top of the ninth inning, the Heroes were up 4-3. From the Wiz fans’ side of the stadium, a song-cheer rang out: “Hit, hit, hit, hit. Please hit the ball, please hit the ball. A home run would be good, too!”
From the other side, the Heroes cheer master urged its crowd to go louder and stronger. “Strike out, strike out,” everyone chanted.
The stands may have battled to a draw, but the Heroes ultimately won on the field. The final championship series will take place next month.
- South Korean baseball gives fans 9 innings of cheers, songs and dances
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