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KBO and K League create templates for the return of sport

Hanwha Eagles players wear masks before the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) League opening game (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

  • Korea’s football and baseball leagues have published detailed guidelines governing their resumptions this week.
  • Testing regimes, distancing measures, and contingency plans for positive tests have been outlined.
  • There has been increased interest in the leagues’ international media rights due to their restart.

South Korea’s professional football and baseball leagues are resuming their 2020 seasons this week, after the country has had greater success than most in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The two leagues will operate under extraordinary measures designed to make sure they do not contribute to further spreading of the virus; measures which could prove a useful template for other sports event organisers around the world as they contemplate their own restarts.

Indeed, the K League, the organiser of the country’s top two football divisions, has already shared its Covid-19 ‘manual’ with the World League Forum, a grouping of football leagues which includes the English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Spanish LaLiga, Italian Serie A and French Ligue 1.

With South Korea witnessing a steady decline in new Covid-19 cases in recent weeks, the government has eased social distancing guidelines. This gave the K League and the Korea Baseball Organisation (KBO) the green light to resume their respective seasons with games in empty stadiums.

The KBO’s 2020 season began six weeks later than expected on May 5, with five games at 2pm local time. The league is aiming to complete its full 144-game season this year.

The season-opener for the K League 1 will be a match between Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Suwon Samsung Bluewings at 7pm local time this Friday, May 8. Jeonbuk will host the game at Jeonju World Cup Stadium, 240km south of Seoul. The plan is that both the K League 1 and K League 2 will both play 27 rounds, reduced from their usual 38 and 33 rounds, respectively.

Testing regimes

Both leagues have tested everyone that is to be involved in games in advance of the season start. Going forward, players, coaches and other staff will monitor their own health, and reports of Covid-19 symptoms will result in quarantines, further tests, and, in the case of positive results, suspensions of matches.

The KBO tested all its players and found no infections. Testing was conducted by the teams themselves, many of whom are owned by Korea’s biggest companies, including Hyundai, LG, Samsung and Kia.

If any KBO player tests positive for Covid-19 at any point in the season, the whole league will be suspended for a minimum of three weeks. Anyone who has come into contact with the infected player must self-quarantine for 14 days. Stadiums the player has recently played in will be closed for two days and will be cleaned and disinfected.

An epidemiologist will investigate the positive Covid-19 case to determine the risk that has been created. A special KBO committee will assess the epidemiologist’s report and determine whether the league can restart.

A K League spokesman told SportBusiness that 1,100 people, including players, coaching staff and supporting staff who work closely with players, from 22 clubs, were tested for Covid-19 from April 27 to 29. The test results were reported to the league office on May 1, and everyone tested negative. The league covered the cost of the tests, at about $130 (€119) per person, or $143,000 in total.

The K League expects between 250 and 300 people to be present at each game, including players, coaching staff, league officials, other club staff and stadium operating staff. They have been split into three groups, with different measures applying to each in the case of Covid-19 symptoms appearing or a positive test result.

Group 1 is made up of ‘essential’ match participants, including players, coaching staff and refereeing officials. If anyone from Group 1 shows symptoms, they will enter quarantine for two weeks and be tested. If they test positive, anyone who came into contact with them will also be asked to self-quarantine for two weeks.

If a player is quarantined, his team, along with the teams they played against in recent weeks, will be barred from playing a match for at least two weeks. Training will also be restricted.

Similarly to the KBO, an epidemiologist’s investigation will take place, and the K League will use this to decide whether or when to re-introduce the affected teams to the league.

Group 2 is made of league officials, including match coordinators, referee assessors and video assisted refereeing system operators. People from this group showing symptoms will be placed in quarantine and a reserve person or people will be called up to work in their place. If there is a positive test, an epidemiologist’s investigation will take place, but the league will continue running as normal until the epidemiologist’s report recommends otherwise.

Group 3 covers any other participants on matchday, including club staff and media. Anyone showing symptoms from this group will be placed under quarantine. Should they test positive for Covid-19, an epidemiologist’s investigation will take place, with the league running normally until further action is decided as a result of the epidemiologist’s report.

In-game measures

Both leagues have published detailed measures on how games should be conducted in order to minimise the risk of virus spread.

The KBO first published a Covid-19 ‘manual’ on March 20. As the pandemic grew, the document was upgraded to a 32-page set of guidelines and was re-issued on April 17.

The KBO guidelines for players and team officials include:

  • Completion of a daily check for Covid-19 symptoms and reporting of the results via an app.
  • Wearing masks at all times except during training and games.
  • Wearing masks during games in all zones except for the field of play and the dugout.
  • High-fives and handshakes are prohibited during games.
  • Spitting during games is prohibited.
  • Direct contact between players and umpires during games is prohibited.
  • Social distancing should be practised by people remaining two metres apart while in locker rooms, in showers, and at other locations.

Additionally, the use of disposable gloves is mandatory for umpires, team officials (coaches, managers and translators), ball/batboys and girls, and video assisted refereeing staff.

The families of overseas players who enter the country during the season must self-quarantine, according to government guidelines, in separate accommodation.

KBO stadiums will have temperature checks with a thermal camera or contactless thermometers at all entrances and exits, and hand sanitisers will be widely available throughout the venues.

Anyone who has travelled overseas within the last 14 days, or who is showing Covid-19 symptoms, will not be allowed to work as operations staff in stadiums during games. All stadium employees will be required to wear masks and disposable gloves.

Football’s head start

Korean professional football returned for the first time since February with a behind-closed-doors friendly match between K League 1 team Incheon United and K League 2 team Suwon FC on April 24, during which Covid-19 prevention actions were tested.

Korean football had a head start in implementing its Covid-19 protection measures. Prior to the virus becoming a global pandemic, Korean teams were taking part in the Asian Football Confederation Champions League group stages. The AFC was one of the first federations in world football to undertake precautionary measures against the virus.

South Korea had four teams in the Champions League group stage. During their final games before the competition was suspended, the Korean Football Association put in place screening measures for teams, match officials and spectators. These included re-organised entry routes to stadiums, to have people pass heat detection cameras and fill out questionnaires to aid contact tracing. There was also a distribution of hand sanitisers and masks and an allocation of additional medical staff.

The KFA has since distributed guidelines to clubs to help prevent the spread of the virus, including barring practice games against other clubs and restricting contact with people outside clubs. These measures have been ramped up to form the K League guidelines that are underpinning the resumption of the league.

The measures the league is implementing include:

  • Ongoing testing of players, staff, referees, match coordinators and all other people involved in matches.
  • Players are prohibited from spitting; shaking the hands of the referee or opposing players before or after games; or approaching the referee or his assistants.
  • Players and officials must use personal water bottles, marked with their own names.
  • Masks must be worn by coaches and everyone present inside stadiums.
  • In a move that is likely to raise eyebrows, players are also not supposed to shout during games.

International appeal

The return of baseball and football in South Korea would normally be of largely domestic interest, but as the leagues are among a tiny number back in play during the pandemic, global audiences are set to tune in.

The KBO and K League have inked a number of international media rights deals to show their games live. US sports broadcaster ESPN and Japanese OTT service Spozone have acquired live rights for the KBO’s 2020 season. The K League has agreed media rights deals in 10 overseas markets, with potentially more to come. Sports media group Sportradar manages the league’s media rights outside Korea, and has agreed deals in markets including China, Hong Kong, Croatia and Germany, as well as with digital platforms Dugout, 433 and Copa90.

Despite their early resumption, and possible bumps in international media rights revenue, the leagues are braced for a substantial financial hit this season. With a shortened season, lost sponsorship deals and no ticket sales due to empty stadiums, the K League is projecting a decline in revenues across the 12 K-League and 10 K-League 2 teams of KRW57.5bn (€43.5/$47m) this year. It told SportBusiness it expected to lose roughly KRW200m for each cancelled match, although the actual figure will vary depending on the teams involved. But the league said no club was yet suffering “severe” financial difficulty.

Baseball might fare somewhat better financially as it hopes to complete a full season.

Despite the expected losses, for now the Korean leagues stand as two rare beacons of hope for the sports world that something resembling normal life can resume in the not-too-distant future.

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