As Byung Ho Park, the Minnesota Twins’ new power slugger, mingled with reporters following his introductory news conference last Wednesday, Dave St. Peter, the team’s president, stood a few feet away and said the Twins jersey looked good on its first South Korean player.
“I think we’re going to be seeing a lot of those next summer,” St. Peter said. Park’s arrival is a potential turning point, not just for the Twins’ on-field performance but also its development as a business and an entertainment brand.
The Twins were the most profitable sports organization in Minnesota last year, according to an estimate by Forbes magazine. But like most pro sports teams, its fan and revenue base is confined to a geographic area.
This past season, two teams with similar regional appeal, the Pittsburgh Pirates and Texas Rangers, saw interest and exposure expand after the arrival and success of Korean players. The gains happened not just in South Korea but among Koreans in the U.S. and Asian-Americans who connect to Korea because of its pop music, TV dramas and movies.
Both teams saw higher ticket and merchandise sales as they traveled around the league. And both teams had nearly all their games broadcast on cable in South Korea, a country of 50 million whose national team, which included Park, won the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics.
“I’m excited for Minnesota. They have a pretty special thing coming,” said Martin Kim, a Los Angeles Dodgers business development executive who spent a year as translator for pitcher Hyun Jin Ryu, also from South Korea. “Park is a superstar in Korea.”
Park, 29, is a two-time MVP and three-time Golden Glove winner in the Korean Baseball Organization. He played first base for his most recent team in Korea, but the Twins plan to use him as a designated hitter. He hit more than 50 home runs in each of the last two seasons but will face tougher pitching in the U.S. The Twins paid a $12.85 million fee to his Korean team and signed him to a four-year, $12 million contract.
“We signed Byung Ho Park because he’s a very good baseball player. We think he has a chance to help us win a lot of games. That’s reason numbers one, two, three and four,” St. Peter said.
“That said, we were well aware of some of the potential advantages to signing a player of Mr. Park’s stature from Korea and some of these opportunities that it may provide,” he said.
Like many midsize and large U.S. businesses, the Twins and Major League Baseball face growing pressure to develop beyond their traditional base. The sport’s domestic growth is limited by its already pervasive reach, with 30 major league clubs like the Twins and 240 minor league teams throughout the U.S. and five neighboring countries. At the same time, TV and Internet technology deliver an increasing variety of sports to compete for the attention of U.S. fans.
And the businesses that use sports teams as a marketing platform have more choices than ever. The English Premier League, distributed worldwide and considered a model for sports league development, is on U.S. network TV. The most streamed sports league on YouTube is Indian cricket. “The battleground or competition for fans, for business, and cultural relevance, is literally around the world,” said Chris Park, senior vice president for growth, strategy and international at Major League Baseball. “And the traditional, call them fiefdoms or parameters of different sports culturally are changing very quickly.”
So is the idea that international players can only create a business impact for clubs in cities with sizable ethnic communities, thinking shaped by the experiences of Mexico’s Fernando Valenzuela in Los Angeles in the 1980s, or Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle more recently.
“Fans and media are accustomed to seeing high-profile players from important baseball markets outside the United States coming to major league clubs in cities that have a really large, directly relevant ethnic sub-community,” Park said. “The Pirates experience, and what I think will bear out with the Twins as well, shows us there is real power in getting international talent even if you are in cities in the United States that don’t have a large, directly relevant ethnic subcommunity.”
The Twin Cities is the home to about 20,000 Koreans, many who are or were students at the University of Minnesota, and tens of thousands more Korean Americans. That’s well below the nearly 1 million Koreans and Korean Americans in the Los Angeles area.
Twins executives say that, if Park is successful, he may open up a new audience and marketing opportunities, not just with Koreans but with others outside of its traditional base. “Based on what we’ve seen with social media, there’s been tremendous interest,” said Laura Day, the team’s executive vice president for business development.
Several Twins sponsors that do business with South Korean companies immediately reached out to the club to talk about promotional ideas. Two of the largest and best-known Korean businesses, Samsung and LG, also phoned to set up discussions.
“It just opens up a tremendous amount of opportunity not just for Twins, but also some of those partners that are embedded into our Twins and Target Field DNA who have pretty important relationships with specific companies in Korea,” Day said.
The University of Minnesota offered to help the team with Park’s settling in to the Twin Cities, St. Peter said.
In 2011, the Twins signed a Japanese player, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, with some similar hopes that on-field performance would yield off-field benefits. He was injured in just his sixth game, however, batted just .226 in an abbreviated season and eventually sought early release from his contract.
“What’s different about this, and is something that could create opportunity, is just the stature of Park in Korean baseball,” St. Peter said. “Where Nishi was a good player, he was not MVP of the league. Park has a higher profile.”
The team executives said their first priority is to create a comfortable environment for Park, his wife and their young son. Day said the Twins have talked to executives at several other teams with deeper experience with Asian players in particular.
As Jung Ho Kang emerged as a key player for the Pirates this season, the team late in the season paid tribute to him by inviting a Korean pop star to throw out the first pitch. Kim, the Dodgers executive, said it was an impressive move for a team with little experience with Asian players. “That was great for Kang,” Kim said. “They gave him a lot of face,” meaning respect and honor.
The Dodgers have a long history with international players and marketing outreach, stretching back to the first exhibition game in Japan by a major league team more than 50 years ago. It signed the first South Korean to play in the majors, pitcher Chan Ho Park, in the 1990s.
This past season, the Dodgers scheduled a “Korea Night” promotion, complete with a K-pop concert, for a game against the Rangers, touting that team’s Shin Soo Choo as a reason to come to Dodger Stadium. When the Pirates visited, the Dodgers promoted Kang to local Korean groups, but he was injured the night before the series.
“We’d sold hundreds of tickets to Koreans,” Kim said. “What are you going to do?”