SUWON — Suwon is a football city the same way Busan is a baseball town. Suwon Mayor Yeom Tae-young, however, vows to give K-League powerhouse Samsung Bluewings some competition for hometown loyalty.
Yeom is talking big after his city defeated North Jeolla Province in a heated bid to be the home of the Korea Baseball Organization's (KBO) 10th team, which will debut in 2015. The 52-year-old is confident that the expansion team, to be owned by telecommunications giant KT, will be very popular out of the gate and eventually allow Suwon to challenge Seoul's status as the country's top sports city.
"I believe football and baseball will coexist," he said Tuesday.
"We have a lot of baseball fans here as well as football fans who also like baseball. The two sports will create a significant synergy effect and I expect Suwon to grow as a sports mecca."
Yeom is confident that Suwon will provide a massive fan base for the new team, pointing out that there are nearly 300 active amateur baseball teams in the city.
"The support toward landing a baseball team has been significant. Our survey showed that more than 90 percent of the citizens said they want a Suwon baseball team," he said.
Just years ago, it would have been hard to picture a municipal authority happy about betting on a new professional baseball team, let alone cities tripping over themselves to win the rights to host them.
Hyundai Automotive Group, the country's largest carmaker, didn't think twice about discarding four-time champions the Hyundai Unicorns at the end of the 2007 season after the economy became tight. The team, renamed as the Heroes, had to endure an extended period of uncertainty before tire maker Nexon stepped in and picked them up.
Ironically, the lengthening of the economic downturn has seemed to spark baseball's growth as a serious business. When bad news hits and wallets get thin, people seek escapist entertainment. And paying 6,000 won to watch baseball accompanied with beer and fried chicken has proved popular.
Professional baseball drew a record 7.15 million people to its stadiums last year and is the country's biggest spectator sport. Teams are now receiving more investment from their corporate sponsors, who had previously considered them nothing more than glorified billboards.
The increased popularity has the KBO bullishly pulling for expansion. The previously-eight team league will have a ninth club from this season in the Changwon-based NC Dinos and 10 million people are expected to head to ballparks this year.
"According to Hanyang University Sports Industry Marketing Center, hosting a professional baseball team will bring an economic effect worth 92.3 billion won ($84.7 million) to Suwon," Yeom said.
"With sports at the center, projects such as constructing sports and cultural facilities are also under consideration to invigorate the economy."
The city already has the infrastructure in place, including Suwon Baseball Stadium, currently being renovated, needed for running a baseball team.
Defying the concerns that "too many" teams will lower the overall quality of the league, Yeom said such worries only expose ineptitude in measuring how far the city and the sport can reach.
"Few believed winning bronze in the football and gold in baseball at the Olympics were possible for Korea, but we achieved it." Yeom said.
When asked about the purpose of his pledge to create an independent professional league in Gyeonggi Province by 2015, he said it will help to further develop Korean baseball in the long run.
"Given the fact that only a small portion of high school baseball players land a spot in the KBO, the independent league will give players who fail to enter the KBO a place to play."
Yeom called the project of constructing a domed stadium, one of his pledges for hosting the 10th team, as "sports fans' long-cherished wish," but is taking a cautious approach to executing it.
"We will definitely proceed with the project as promised. Gyeonggi Province Governor Kim Moon-soo already gave his word to support it. However, because it the cost will be enormous, we have to carefully measure when and what size of stadium we construct," Yeom said. "It is a huge project that would have subsidiary facilities. If Suwon Baseball Stadium doesn't support demand, we will build the dome."