The Korean professional baseball league had its biggest season ever last year with 5.92 million spectators, and the pre-season exhibition games this year have been immensely popular as well. Part of the reason for the increased popularity is the teams' greater efforts to spice up games with cheering songs and choreography. Cheerleaders have become a fixture in the stadiums, helping to energize the atmosphere.
Bae Soo-hyun is a veteran cheerleader with a career spanning more than eight years. She started with the SK Wyverns in 2003 and has never moved to another team, which is a rather rarity in her profession.
Having watched over 400 SK Wyverns games, Bae has now become an expert when it comes to baseball. In her second year on the squad in 2004, the professional baseball league drew just 2.33 million spectators, the lowest since 1990. "Fans just weren't responsive at the time, and it was very difficult to cheerlead. But it all changed when the Korean team performed very well at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the World Baseball Classic," Bae said. "These days I love cheerleading because there are so many fans who cheer along with us."
Along with the rising number of spectators is a conspicuous change in the demographics. The stadiums which used to be filled with middle-aged men are now brimming with passionate fans in their teens and 20s. There has been a remarkable increase in female fans as well. "The fans have become much more active, and they don't hesitate to express their love and support for individual players," Bae said. Amid this atmosphere, cheerleaders are also being treated as stars, receiving gifts and having fan clubs. Bae's website has 1,500 members.
Some 60 cheerleaders work for the nation's pro baseball teams, about six to eight per team. The squads are normally run by sports events agencies, which sign one-year contracts with the teams. The working conditions for cheerleaders, however, have not improved much since the late 1990s. Their dynamic body movements put pressure on their knees and ankles, and they are prone to injuries. Despite the risks, Bae and many other cheerleaders enjoy the thrill of performing in the cheerleading stands. She also enjoys her fame outside of the stadium, where she is just as popular as some sluggers.