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Korean, Japanese sports fans eye L.A.

Baseball, figure skating converge this week in Southern California

Yu-Na Kim's winning ways have made figure skating very popular in Korea.
Yu-Na Kim's winning ways have made figure skating very popular in Korea. (Getty Images)

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By Mickey Brown, special to icenetwork.com
(03/23/2009) - The eyes of two Asian nations are focused squarely on Los Angeles this week, and not just because of the much-hyped showdown between reigning world champion Mao Asada of Japan and two-time world bronze medalist Yu-Na Kim of the Republic of Korea.

The two semifinal games of the World Baseball Classic took place Saturday and Sunday at Dodger Stadium, about a 10-minute drive from the STAPLES Center, and wouldn't you know it, Japan and Korea emerged victorious from those contests, setting up an all-Far East championship game Monday night.

With many media members here to cover both the baseball and the figure skating competitions, icenetwork.com wanted to get the scoop on how the sports, and their participants, are perceived in each country.

Sunghoon Lee, a sports reporter for the Korean television station SBS, has covered both figure skating and baseball for the last two years. He said that baseball is, and has always been, the most widely followed sport in the country.

"Everyone loves baseball. Everyone plays it from childhood," Lee said. "Baseball is almost life in Korea."

While there is no single Korean baseball player whose visibility rivals that of Kim, the sport itself is immensely popular. For the broadcast of the WBC semifinal against Venezuela, which aired live early Sunday morning, 40 percent of the televisions in Korea were tuned to the game.

Lee said that figure skating competitions in which Kim skates get similar ratings as baseball.

"As soon as Yu-Na started winning competitions, [figure skating] got very popular," Lee said.

As did the skater herself. In a survey taken in January, Yu-Na Kim was named the most popular Korean celebrity, and just recently she was ranked first on the Forbes Korea "Power Celebrity 40," a list that used media appearances, professionalism and income as its criteria.

What would happen if Korea was to win the WBC championship and Kim captured the world title Saturday night?

"There would be no time to sleep for me," Lee joked.

World-class skating in Japan dates back further than it does in Korea, the most notable examples being world champion and Olympic silver medalist Midori Ito and world champion Yuka Sato, but the sport really took off after Shizuka Arakawa's gold-medal performance at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy.

But figure skating still has a ways to go to equal baseball's level of popularity in Japan, which has its own professional league.

"If the final game of the WBC and Mao Asada's free skate were on at the same time, most Japanese people would watch the baseball," said Takafumi Wada, a sports writer for the JiJi Press.

Wada covered Major League Baseball for five years in New York City. He says skaters such as Arakawa and Asada are as recognizable to Japanese sports fans as baseball players like Seattle Mariners outfielder Ichiro Suzuki and Boston Red Sox pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

"Japanese people like Olympic sports, so they're very interested in figure skating," Wada said.

He said that since Japan won the inaugural WBC three years ago and Asada already has one world title under her belt, the celebrations back home would be more muted than they would be in Korea.

Either Korea or Japan will have a new world title to its credit after Monday's WBC final. Time will tell if one of those countries will make it a double Saturday night.