The dark side of the Korean Basketball League

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This was written early this year. A lot has happened since then, – unfortunately for the worse – but this is the first series of a number of articles I will release about experiencing the dark side of the Korean Basketball League.

KBL commiss

KBL commissioner Kim Young Ki cheers to celebrate some of the darkest days in KBL history.

It’s January 2015, and I feel the excitement rushing through my body. It’s that feeling of rush and adrenaline. I’m at center court in Jamsil arena, home of the Seoul Samsung Thunders. But tonight I’m not here to see the Thunders; I’m here to watch the 2015 KBL all-star game. Now I know I shouldn’t have this feeling because the KBL all-star game is nothing to feel special about; in fact, it’s regressed every year since I started covering the KBL in 2012. But I still get that feeling because, well, I love basketball.

I grew up in Canada, where ice hockey is above and beyond more popular than any other sport. When I got to middle school, that is when I fell in love with basketball. I was so in love with the game of basketball that even against my parents wish for me to play hockey, I chose basketball. My parents were disappointed, sure, they spent a lot of time and money to develop my hockey skills but after time, they saw how committed I was to basketball. I can’t say why or how I fell in love with basketball, but I remember every time I walked in a gym, it felt like home.

So here I am, in Seoul, South Korea, at Jamsil Arena sitting in the media section of the 2015 KBL all-star game. I’m over 10,000 km away from Toronto but right here, in this basketball arena, I feel right at home. My playing days are over, but now, as a reporter, I see basketball through a different perspective. I’m not just watching point guard crossovers or forwards throw down tomahawk dunks. I see a bigger picture. I see basketball as a business, and a sport.

Two months ago, I had the chance to cover the Toronto Raptors for an entire week. The organization opened their doors to me so I can see practices, press conferences, and gameday activities. I realized how sophisticated the inner workings of the NBA really are. I realized that the secret to the NBA’s success is transparency. The fact of the matter is the NBA built a brand so organized that it allows cameras and reporters to follow the league every step of the way. They are not afraid to show what they are or who they are because they do things the right way.

I’ve travelled to many countries to cover different basketball leagues and I must say the KBL is one of the top leagues in Asia. Sure it has its problems, as do many other leagues, but the problems the KBL faces are not impossible problems.

The first major problem the KBL faces is acquiring a demand for their product. The KBL is fortunate to have cable television outlets such as KBS, SBS, MBC, and SpoTV broadcast their games to a potentially wide audience. When the NBA was young, they couldn’t even pay broadcast companies to broadcast their games. Some of the NBA’s best moments were not even televised. Could you imagine if Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game or George Gervin 33 point quarter (without a three point line) was broadcasted on television? The KBL is lucky to have this television coverage, but they need to do a better job of sustaining it. Last year, SBS Sports’ interrupted game 1 of the 2014 KBL finals broadcast of the female volleyball championships in Korea. The broadcast company decided to air the ending of the volleyball match over the beginning of the KBL finals. This in large part has to do with the lack of communication between the KBL and the broadcast company. In order to attract the attention of broadcast companies, the league must build a high quality product, something that will acquire a demand. Once that is in place, the KBL should work with the broadcast companies to sustain their demand by creating transparency. Allow the media to access your league, players, and franchises. That would build and keep a successful relationship between the fans and the product in essence creating a higher demand.

I remember when I was a young NBA fan, I loved watching NBA games and NBA highlights. The reason I kept going back to it, other than my natural love for basketball, was that I felt like I knew these players personally. After every game, reporters would interview a couple of players and talk about what is happening inside the team locker room and within the team’s organization. It was like watching basketball and following a drama. It was a great product that kept me coming back to find out what was next. The advantage basketball has in this regard over other sports like baseball or soccer is that a basketball team has only twelve players on it. Each team is like a small family, and within every family holds some drama, positive and negative. And that made for a great television audience, and creates impatient fans running to the sports section of their local news outlets to read about their favorite players or teams.

Another problem the KBL faces is the competitive market of professional sports in Korea. And as of right now, the KBL falls third to baseball and soccer as the most popular professional sport in Korea. And while the KBL is losing revenue, they face a tough challenge to pay their players high salaries while charging fans a fair ticket price. But in any competitive market, employers must pay their employees what they are worth. And player salaries are based on how much revenue that player brings to the team. That revenue is not so much valued in money but demand for the team’s games. This falls under the category of paying players the market value. Many people think high player salaries drive high-ticket prices. But in reality it’s higher demand that leads to higher ticket prices. Salaries in basketball follow demand for the final product. So, a higher demand means higher ticket prices, which would result in higher salaries for player.

As of right now, many people think KBL players are overpaid compared to the average Korean worker. Then again, pro basketball players aren’t the average worker. Few people would buy a ticket to watch the best auto mechanic at work. But thousands would pay to watch a top basketball player. The KBL does a great job of implementing a salary cap to enhance competitive balance within the league, but failed to calculate the demand before setting player salaries. NBA player contracts weren’t always as lucrative as they are now. Like the early days of the KBL, many old NBA players worked two jobs while playing professional basketball. It wasn’t until the NBA became a product with high demand that player salaries started to rise. If KBL players want to keep their high salaries, and the KBL wants to keep paying their players competitively among other professional sports leagues in Korea, then the two must work hand-in-hand to improve the demand for the KBL as a product.

Establishing a reputation for having the highest quality product remains a difficult challenge for the KBL. Of course, nothing will ever compare to the NBA. But the KBL can match some business strategies used by the NBA attract a bigger audience. In high school, my favorite team was the Toronto Raptors. But my strongest memories of the NBA during that time was the 2004 Detroit Pistons run to an NBA title. The popularity of the NBA was rising. But around that same time, the NBA’s image was regressing. Many basketball fans might remember the following season when Ron Artest jumped into the crowd and started fighting fans, an incident that is remembered as ‘the malice in the palace’. NBA commissioner David Stern knew there was a problem and found a quick solution. He and the NBA front office would work together in establishing a strong code of conduct policy that handed out strict fines and suspensions for any player breaking the rules while tarnishing the image of the NBA. They also implemented a dress code for NBA players to follow showing that the NBA is a business and players should dress according to their title as professionals. The KBL might not have this type of sophistication, but introducing a professional image to their league doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Recent suspensions to referees and increasing number of technical fouls prove that a small problem does exist.

Jeong angry with refs

To enhance the league’s image, the KBL needs to organize stronger policies. While they are adjusting to new rules such as the insertion of the FIBA rules and innovations like in-game video replay, they are lacking in handing out suspensions and fines for poor behavior. Doing this would require a specific committee and extra work for those on that committee. And the league doesn’t want to give that power to head of the referee department. They want to keep all the power to themselves. But with power comes responsibility. And responsibilities are lacking in the KBL front office.

The biggest example of this was Busan KT SonicBoom head coach Jeong Chang Jin and his complete outrage against a referee during a game on February 12th against the LG Sakers. Coach Jeong Chang Jin had the right to be upset, but acted in a non-professional way. He used language that was offensive and actions that were not suitable for live television. The broadcast company didn’t do the KBL any favors by sticking a microphone in his face and documenting the entire incident but it was the KBL who were the biggest losers in this episode as they failed to take the necessary actions to suspend coach Jeong Chang Jin for his poor behavior. This is not a good way to establish a high quality reputation for professional sports. (Editing note: Since I wrote this piece, Jeong faced allegations of match-fixing that lead to a trial in Korean courts. His skill for hiding evidence beat the Korean judicial system and the case was dropped.)

The KBL can also follow the NBA’s trend of consistent innovations. When the NBA sees a problem, they fix it. When the NBA sees an opportunity, they try it. Mind you, the NBA is not perfect, they’ve failed at a lot of different ideas but they are never afraid to try. The KBL has a lot of potential. This season, it will celebrate its 20th anniversary and with that comes a lot of changes. There are a lot of different ideas being discussed within the KBL’s front office and the most important thing is to get it right. And with Korea priding themselves on being the most wired country in the world, using their advanced technology could give themselves a unique basketball brand creating their own identity in the universal world of basketball.

The KBL front office is at the free-throw line and they only have one shot to win. If they miss the shot, it’s going to take a long time to have another chance for the win. But if they make it, then they can expect big things to come. I for one will be watching the entire play unfold. KBL, the ball is in your court.

There are some good sides to the KBL, those will be documented in upcoming columns. Stay locked in. 

Nick Bedard (@bedardnick) is the editor-in-chief of Basketballbuddha.com.

1 Comment

  1. Jaison

    December 7, 2015 at 6:44 pm

    Nick, as a Korean American who also share your passion I really want to commend you on your dedication and commitment to bringing us the “INSIDE STUFF.” It’s hard to follow the KBL when we all know that it resembles a part of society where power is concentrated at the top, but your journalism and glimpses into the Asian Basketball Arena allows me to make some sense of it and hold out hope.
    Two insights. One, think that marketability of sports is huge for revenue and when I can’t buy a KBL jersey online it reminds me of how hard it is to grow demand when you don’t have products out there advertising (Aside from those huge posters you see at stadiums or random department stores.) Second, as a basketball official I can tell you that KBL has a long way to go, the ref’s miss fundamental mechanics and are always ball watching and not covering the floor and off ball action, really think you have a point about officials having an impartial and empowered ability to impact games.

    Keep up the good work, I’ll be definitely reading and will get you some followers on facebook =)

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