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ESPN’s KBO Broadcasts Don’t Respect the Game

Thanks to a deal announced on May 22, ESPN’s English-language broadcasts of Korea Baseball Organization (KBO) games became available in Canada on TSN starting on May 23 (schedule). I unfortunately did not become aware of this until seeing a chyron advertising KBO coverage during TSN’s broadcast of UFC Fight Night on Saturday, May 30.

I tuned in to watch part of the May 31 game between the Lotte Giants and Doosan Bears after the Fight Night post-match show and ESPN’s handling was disappointing, even though I already had low expectations given the poor quality of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts.

The broadcast crew for ESPN’s KBO coverage consists of Jason Benetti, the Chicago White Sox TV play-by-play announcer, and Jessica Mendoza, the former Sunday Night Baseball analyst who was demoted from Sunday Night Baseball and who left her role as a New York Mets front office analyst after her comments about pitcher Mike Fiers’ whistleblower role in the Astros sign stealing scandal raised concerns about the inherent conflict of interest between her roles. The color analysis provided by Mendoza is supplemented by a rotating panel of guests who join the broadcast to discuss various topics.

While Benetti is a major improvement over the annoying and sexist Sunday Night Baseball play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian, the broadcast does not treat KBO games as something that merits the crew’s full attention. When guests join the broadcasts, Benetti and Mendoza cease calling the game to discuss outside topics with the guests. This is one of the major failings of the most recent incarnation of Sunday Night Baseball that is being continued at a time when there are few other options to watch professional sports.

When guests join the broadcast, the screen is generally split to show the camera feed from the field as well as the feeds from the physically distant broadcasters and guests who are working from home. However, at times the broadcast completely omits the field camera feed to fill the screen with the feeds from the broadcasters and guests, which makes the broadcast seem more like a talk show or podcast than a live sports event.

The KBO’s deal with ESPN was made in order to showcase the league at a time when it is one of the only professional baseball leagues competing, but ESPN is disrespecting KBO baseball by treating the broadcasts like an opportunity to host a talk show rather than introduce viewers to a new league. The KBO is the most popular sports league in a nation that is one of the world’s economic and cultural leaders. It deserves more attentiveness from those assigned to cover it.

In addition, the ESPN crew does not use guests’ knowledge of the KBO to help familiarize viewers with the league. On May 31, writer Mina Kimes was invited to discuss her experience writing about the KBO for a North American audience. While the crew discussed Kimes’s past articles that served to educate North Americans about the KBO and its culture, they did not attempt to relate her knowledge to the events occurring on the field in any way. For example, Kimes was not asked about whether she had any favorite players on the Giants or Bears, or about any current storylines to follow concerning these teams.

Later in the game, Lotte Giants superfan Kerry Maher came on to share his story of becoming a KBO fan and his role with the Giants helping foreign-born players acclimate to life in South Korea. In addition to having his time on the broadcast limited by technical difficulties, I also did not see the ESPN crew ask Maher about his favorite Giants or the jerseys which could be seen hanging behind him at his home, which I find strange given his billing as a superfan. Surely he has a few favorite players! Given that most Americans are unfamiliar with the KBO, it should be of primary importance to help viewers learn about its stars. It is hard to follow a new league without having a favorite player or knowing who the stars are. I know more about former KBO stars like Eric Thames than about current contenders for the league MVP award.

ESPN’s handling of these broadcasts suggests the broadcaster and its crew do not feel KBO baseball is interesting or competitive enough to hold viewers’ attention on its own. This insults not only the KBO, but also the intelligence of ESPN viewers.

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