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‘Flowers’ of the game

INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) – In baseball-mad South Korea teams of professional cheerleaders pumping up players and fans with elaborate K-pop routines are as integral to the games as drink and fried chicken.

Imported by American missionaries more than 100 years ago, baseball is South Korea’s most cherished spectator sport, beating out even football.

There are no cheerleaders in Major League Baseball in the United States (US), but they are central to the spectacle in South Korea as they relentlessly dance, cheer and lead the fan chanting throughout entire games.

Even when stadiums were devoid of supporters during the height of the pandemic, the players requested that the cheerleading teams continue to perform every innings, saying it was too depressing without them.

“We usually performed facing the players not the empty seats so we were really able to watch the game and cheer in earnest,” 21-year-old Mok Na-gyeong, a cheerleader with the number-one ranked SSG team, told AFP.

Professional cheerleaders for South Korean baseball team SSG Landers perform in Incheon. PHOTO: AFP

“We receive thank-you messages from players saying they got an extra dose of energy from us,” she said, adding that players sometimes request tweaks to their “introduction songs”.

Every baseball player in South Korea’s KBO League has a song written for them by their team. When they step up to the batter’s box, their music is blasted out into stadiums and the cheerleaders start dancing. Bae Soo-hyun, 37, is South Korea’s longest-serving cheerleader and has been performing at SSG Landers Field in Incheon for nearly two decades.

The public perception of cheerleaders has changed, she said, from women in short skirts who dance to professionals who act as a “bridge” between players and fans.

Usually, between four and six SSG cheerleaders perform on a stage in front of one section of the stand.

Their uniform includes a white crop-top with lace over it and silver epaulets, plus wedge trainers to give them extra height.

For Bae and her colleagues, it is a full-time job.

“Without us there wouldn’t be coordinated cheering for the players,” she said, describing how she and her team lead fans through dance routines and chants for specific players.

“Our cheerleading helps players focus more at bat and on the mound. We unite the fans.”

South Koreans are so accustomed to cheerleaders running through their routines with every twist and turn of the game that to watch baseball without them is unthinkable, she said.

“We are the flowers of the game… it would be far less entertaining if we weren’t there!”

South Korea has a strong culture of fandom.

The fans of K-pop sensations BTS are known as ARMY, for example, and their collective power has been brought to bear on everything from disrupting Trump rallies to fundraising for Ukraine.