Financially and culturally, Korea’s sporting influence in the US is significant. Koreans invented the Thunderstick, the now ubiquitous noisemaker at many American sports venues. Any team that signs a Korean player to its roster sees merchandise sales in Korea soar and is guaranteed to see an increase in broadcast licensing requests from Korean sports channels. And as Koreans succeed on the international stage, so increases the popularity of that sport in the country. Every major tournament a Korean team does well in spawns a new generation of aspiring stars dedicated to becoming the next household name, simultaneously buying up all the high-end equipment and memorabilia they can find.
Korea’s interest in sports has also gained the notice of the US government, which has sent a number of sports envoys to Seoul and other parts of the peninsula over the years. Figure skater Michelle Kwan visited in 2010 and former Major League Baseball (MLB) stars Barry Larkin and Joe Logan went in 2011, all as representatives of the State Department. Even former ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens was known for her athletic endeavors, often playing tennis with influential Koreans and once organizing a 250-kilometer bicycle trip with members of the Korean public to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War.
Sporting relations between the US and Korea go much farther back than most people realize, with the introduction of baseball to the peninsula by American missionary groups in the early 1900s. A 2002 Korean film, YMCA Baseball Team depicts the beginnings of the sport in Korea and its ability, even then, to unite people around a cause – in this case, resistance to the increasing power of Japan over Korea. It wasn’t until roughly 90 years after the introduction of baseball to the Land of the Morning Calm that Korea gave something back to American baseball – Park Chan-ho. In 1994, Park became the first Korean to make it into the American major league, where now thirteen Korean-born Korean players have played the game, eleven of whom have been pitchers. Now, MLB scouts regularly attend Korean high-school games looking for the next big signing.
Koreans have also been particularly strong in women’s golf. With the emergence of Se Ri Pak in 1998, the demographics of the LPGA Tour were forever altered. Her win in the 1998 US Women’s Open made her the first Asian to take the championship and also the youngest player to win at the time, inspiring many young South Korean and Korean-American women to take up the sport. As of publication of this article, four Koreans are in the current Rolex Top 10 rankings, more than any other nationality. Thirty-six Korean women sit in the Rolex Top 100, also more than any other country. The 2013 LPGA Money Leaders list currently has five Koreans in the top ten, factoring in all LPGA events played to date this year. The success of Korean women golfers has led to a surge in popularity for the sport in South Korea and has significantly benefitted golf equipment manufacturers, the majority of which are American.
One sport that is growing in both popularity and domestic talent in both countries is soccer. In the past 20 years, the US and Korea have both hosted the FIFA World Cup. South Korea has already qualified for next year’s World Cup in Brazil, and the US team is highly likely to do the same based on current standings. Oregon-based NIKE, Inc. manufactures the South Korean national team uniforms, and should see sales in Korea increase as fans purchase jerseys ahead of next year’s tournament. The domestic soccer leagues in both countries have recently expanded and are seeing steadily increasing attendance figures. In Korea, awareness of American Major League Soccer is growing, especially as big international names like David Beckham and
Thierry Henry began joining the league. LA Galaxy were invited to play a friendly against FC Seoul of the K-League in 2008 and the Vancouver Whitecaps of the MLS signed a well-known Korean player, Lee Young-pyo, in 2012, where he quickly became a fan-favorite and was voted MVP in his first season. The Galaxy themselves had a Korean player for two years, Hong Myung-bo, a former captain of the national team and the first Asian to play in four consecutive World Cups. Korean contributions to American soccer go back further still, when Cho Young-jeung played for the Portland Timbers in 1981-82 and the Chicago Sting in 1983.
Speed skating is another sport in which Korea has risen to global prominence, and has even given some of its talent to the US. Simon Cho was born in Korea but was brought to the US by his family at the age of 4. By 11 he was a citizen and by 18 he was earning medals for the Red, White and Blue at the Vancouver Olympics, where he took bronze. He also saw gold at the 2011 World Championships in Sheffield, England. Another Korean American, Dr. Sammy Lee, was the first Asian-American to medal at the Olympics, which he did as a diver at the 1948 and 1952 games. Dr. Lee later went on to coach several other successful American Olympians, including Greg Louganis.
South Korea is a producer of world-class athletes that positively contribute to American domestic leagues and to US national teams in global competitions. It is also a significant market for American-made sporting goods and equipment. The sports aspect of the US-Korea relationship is clearly not one to be overlooked.