SEOUL -- Despite Minnesota's win-loss record and Byung Ho Park's recent struggles at the plate, it's evident the Twins are gaining a following in Korea, as Minnesota Twins hats and jerseys are easily spotted among the crowds at Gocheok Sky Dome, the new home of the Nexen Heroes.
Park's No. 52 jersey is the most popular one in the stands, and at MLB stores throughout Seoul, Twins hats are on sale along with teams with Korean stars, such as the Pirates (Jung Ho Kang), Rangers (Shin-Soo Choo), Dodgers (Hyun-Jin Ryu) and Orioles (Hyun Soo Kim).
Twins scout David Kim, who is based in Seoul and has been with the organization since 2000, said it's the first time he can remember seeing Twins hats being sold in Seoul. The Twins also are on Korean television often, as an MLB game is broadcast live each morning on MBC Sports, and Minnesota is frequently featured due to Park's popularity.
"I equate it with the growing interest in Premier League soccer here, with people getting up early to watch a team like Manchester United at a bar," Twins senior director of corporate partnerships Jeff Jurgella said. "People will get up at 7 in the morning to watch a game. And there's a ton of people wearing MLB merchandise over there. It's like a fashion statement."
Shortly after the Twins signed Park to a four-year deal after submitting the winning posting bid to the Korean Baseball Organization's Nexen Heroes, the Twins sent a contingent to Seoul in late January to explore potential marketing opportunities.
With the help of Major League Baseball International and Octagon, the agency that represents Park and other Korean stars such as Pittsburgh's Kang, the Twins secured meetings with agencies that represent some of the biggest companies based in South Korea, such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai.
Park, a two-time MVP of the KBO who hit a combined 105 homers over his final two seasons with the Heroes, was a star in his native country despite playing for a team that's not considered among the most popular in the 10-team KBO.
The meetings, which were attended by executive vice president of business development Laura Day and Jurgella, allowed the Twins to get a sense for just how big of a following Park had in Korea, and also laid the groundwork for future relationships with Korean businesses.
"We've seen some early benefits," said Twins president Dave St. Peter. "We think there is great potential over time, but admittedly we're taking it slow. I think Byung Ho's on-field performance will dictate some of those marketing efforts. But there's no doubt in my mind that with fans of Korean baseball, the Twins are on the map."
I found this Byung Ho Park Nexen Heroes figurine today at Jamsil Stadium but game I planned to attend was rained out pic.twitter.com/URz0coICFd
While Park has put the Twins on the map in Korea, he did the same with the Nexen Heroes, which joined the KBO in 2008. Park, who originally played with the LG Twins (the New York Yankees of the KBO) was traded to Nexen in 2011 after underperforming with LG. But he immediately found success with Nexen and, along with Kang, the duo led the Heroes to their first-ever postseason appearances in 2013 and '14, losing in the finals in '14.
"He was our best selling jersey," said Young-Kwon Ko, who works with the Heroes' marketing team. "Our team hasn't been around very long, so it's like a miracle seeing this many fans here. Like eight years ago, our cheerleading team was more than our fans sometimes, but Park and Kang, those two players, did a huge amount for our marketing."
Unlike the United States, players aren't individually marketed in Korea, where the team is always considered more important than any one player.
"It's different there, because with Major League Baseball a lot of the superstars have personal endorsements, but you don't really see that there," Day said. "It's very much of a team focus over there. That's part of what we wanted to learn a little bit about with the cultural differences."
There are no endorsement deals for KBO stars, but once players reach the Majors, that's no longer the case. There are several New Era hat advertisements throughout Seoul promoting players such as Ryu and Kang, while Ryu also has deals with Ottoji Jin Ramen and English language academies.
The Rangers and Dodgers both have had successful relationships with Korean companies, but there's always risk involved. Los Angeles reached an agreement on a seven-figure deal with LG last year, only to see Ryu not pitch at all this season because of a shoulder injury, so Korean companies are being understandably patient about entering into marketing deals with the Twins and Park.
But it hasn't stopped the Twins from promoting Park on a local level and engaging with the Korean-American community based in Minnesota. One of the first meetings Park had upon arriving in the Twin Cities for his introductory press conference was at 3M headquarters in Maplewood, Minn. Park was able to meet with H.C. Kim, who is the vice chairman of 3M and the creator of the Korean American Association of Minnesota.
The Twins partnered with that association for Byung Ho Park Day at Target Field on April 18, with Kim throwing out the ceremonial first pitch. Special ticket packages were sold in a section called Park's Balcony, with fans receiving hats that said Minnesota Twins in Korean. Park homered against the Brewers that day, and the Korean fans in the stands sang his chant from his days with the Nexen Heroes.
The Twins plan to hold similar events promoting Park in the future, with the next one coming up on July 5, and believe his presence locally will grow in time, especially once he starts to perform better offensively on the field.
"We've worked to mobilize the local Korean community here in Minnesota and some within the corporate community here," St. Peter said. "But we don't want to put undue pressure on Byung Ho. He's dealing with enough right now with the transition. I think over time once he gets more comfortable and has more success, we'll become more aggressive in those areas. But he didn't come here to be a celebrity. He came here to be a part of this team, and we're thrilled."