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Korean baseball's return is a bitter pill for American sports, but a win for ESPN

Daniel Roberts
Editor-at-Large

South Korea and the United States had their first reported cases of coronavirus on the same date: Jan. 20. But the countries took two starkly different approaches to containing their outbreaks, and now South Korea’s economy will begin reopening this week, including schools, parks, museums, and Korean pro baseball—while U.S. sports are still shut down across the board.

South Korea has had 10,801 total confirmed coronavirus cases and its curve peaked in early March, according to the Johns Hopkins University tracker. The U.S. has had 1.17 million confirmed cases.

The KBO (Korea Baseball Organization) begins its season on Tuesday in empty ballparks without fans; it has been playing preseason games in that format throughout April. Meanwhile, the China Professional Baseball League (CPBL) in Taiwan resumed play on April 11, and will begin allowing 1,000 fans at each game on May 8.

The return of these Asian baseball leagues is in many ways an embarrassing contrast to the state of play in America, where the NBA, NHL, and Major League Soccer all halted their in-progress seasons in March, MLB delayed the start of its season, and the NCAA called off its March Madness basketball tournament.

The NFL held its virtual NFL Draft last month with record viewership, and is still optimistic its season can start on time in September. MLB is reportedly hoping to start up its season in late June, while the NBA and NHL are reportedly aiming to return later in the summer. There are still doubts about the college football season, which will depend on colleges and universities opening on time.

As ESPN's Pablo Torre said over the weekend on "Outside The Lines," the KBO's return "would be inspiring if it also wasn’t so humiliating” for the U.S.

But in a savvy move at a time when American sports fans are desperate for live sports to watch, ESPN finalized a deal at the last minute with Eclat Media Group to become the exclusive English-language broadcaster for the 2020 KBO season, it announced on Monday, one day before the KBO’s season starts. Financial terms were not disclosed, but Yonhap News had reported in April that ESPN initially failed to get the rights after it attempted to get them free of charge, so this time around, there is likely money changing hands.

As part of the deal, beginning late on Monday night, ESPN will air six KBO games live per week with full play-by-play commentary in English from ESPN baseball hosts including Karl Ravech, Jon Sciambi, and Jessica Mendoza (from their homes). Most games will run on ESPN2, and they’ll run live: Tuesday through Friday games will air at 5:30am EST, Saturday games at 4am EST, and Sunday games at 1am EST (in other words, very late on Saturday night).

Those times are not ideal, but ESPN2 will re-air each game the next afternoon, and stream games on the ESPN app (for cable subscribers) after they air live.

LG Twins team players play their intra-team game to be broadcasted online for their fans at a stadium emptied due to the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Seoul, South Korea, April 2, 2020. Picture taken April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

The key appeal for ESPN in the deal may not really be the live games anyway, but the additional content: SportsCenter will now be able to show KBO highlights (and not just from the games ESPN airs), which gives ESPN commentators something to talk about in a very dry time when sports story lines (apart from coronavirus) are scarce.

The KBO has 10 teams, and all are named for corporate sponsors: Kia Tigers; Samsung Lions; LG Twins; Lotte Giants; Hanwha Eagles; SK Wyverns; Kiwoom Heroes; NC Dinos; KT Wiz; and Doosan Bears (last year’s champions). South Korea has given MLB such stars as Chan Ho Park, Byung-Hyun Kim, and Hyun-Jin Ryu. The flow goes the other way, too: a number of former MLB players are in the KBO this season.

Even though most games will air on ESPN2, the first game, NC Dinos vs. Samsung Lions, will air on main ESPN, right after Monday night’s midnight SportsCenter with Scott Van Pelt. ESPN clearly aims to make the arrival of KBO on its airwaves feel like an event.