“Go Marong!” “Go Pan Zhendong!”
The scene of the men’s singles final between three-time world champion Ma Rong and world No. 1 Fan Zhendong on the final day of the 2023 Pyeongchang Asian Table Tennis Championships at the Pyeongchang Dome in Gangwon Province, South Korea, was like a scene from China.
Long lines formed outside the box office from early in the morning, and the stadium was surrounded by gates cheering on the Chinese aces. More than 1,000 Chinese fans filled the stands, each holding a colorful placard with the name of their favorite player and chanting “Go! Go! Go!”. The girls’ screams of “ka-ak!” erupted whenever a nail-biting tiebreaker or a fierce drive from their favorite player split the table. All five events – men’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles – featured finals between China’s top players. The men’s and women’s doubles semifinals between Korea and China were also confusing. “The decibel level of “Yay!” overwhelmed the cheers. More than 90% of the fans were young women, many of them with so-called “cannon” (telephoto lens) cameras, a symbol of idol fans. After the game, the team’s shuttle buses were lined up in front of the team’s hotel, and the same fans lined up outside the team’s hotel. In Pyeongchang, South Korea, the popularity of China’s No. 1 sport, table tennis, was on full display.
Since the pandemic, Chinese table tennis fandom has only gotten hotter. “The Chinese players can’t get out of their hotel rooms,” said men’s national team coach Joo Se-hyuk, who played with Marong in the Chinese League as a player. “The fandom of each player’s hometown is huge, including the Marong team. Nowadays, we do live broadcasts on social media, and the players carry their own trunks with gifts from fans.” “If you think about the popularity of basketball stars in the 80s and the popularity of idols nowadays, it would be right,” said Chae Yoon-seok, former coach of the men’s national table tennis team (Samsung Life Insurance). “This popularity has been going on for 10 years, but it seems to be even hotter these days. On a player’s birthday, fan clubs will put up 100 million won advertisements on large building billboards,” he said.
Tickets for the Asian Championships were sold for 10,000 won for E seats (unreserved seats) and 20,000 won for VIP seats on days 1-5, 15,000 won and 30,000 won on day 6, respectively, and 20,000 won for E seats and 40,000 won for VIP seats on days 7 and 8, when the men’s and women’s singles semifinals and finals, the highlights of the tournament, were held. On weekdays 3-6, when the men’s and women’s team events and qualifiers were held, 700-800 fans came in. Most of them were from China. The men’s team final and individual events drew 1026 fans on the 7th and 1508 fans on the 8th. On the 9th, when the men’s doubles semifinals of Jang Woojin-Jonghoon Lim and Park Kanghyun-Ahn Jaehyun were held, Korean fans and Chinese traveling fans came together for the weekend, totaling 2,189 tickets, the highest number of tickets sold at the tournament. On the 10th, the final day of the tournament, which featured the women’s doubles semifinals of Shin Yubin and Jeon Jeon Hee and the men’s and women’s singles finals, 1861 paid spectators attended. The total number of paying spectators was 9531.
The Chinese fans who came to watch the table tennis made PyeongChang, the “Winter Olympics Village,” a relatively quiet place in the summer. While there have been some criticisms of the Chinese fandom for losing out to the local fans, there are also voices calling for a breakthrough in ‘sports tourism’ ahead of the World Table Tennis Championships in Busan next February. 메이저놀이터
In January, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism named the Busan World Table Tennis Championships as one of the 100 K-culture tourism events for the Visit Korea Year. Yoo Seung-min, president of the Korea Table Tennis Association, said, “We didn’t do artificial crowd mobilization like in previous tournaments. It was not easy for Korean fans to travel to Pyeongchang during the weekdays when the qualifiers were held. But on the weekend, the number of fans exceeded our expectations, which was encouraging.” “This is the first event after the remodeling of the PyeongChang Dome, which is also a legacy of PyeongChang. PyeongChang is not just for winter sports. With the cool and comfortable environment in the summer, we can also host summer sports like table tennis. A lot of Chinese fans came. With a budget of 2.1 billion won, I think we got 10 times more tourism and publicity. Pyeongchang County is also very satisfied,” he said with pride.
He was eager to see more domestic and international fans fill the stadiums in Busan, the ‘Table Tennis City’ next year. “Busan is a city that people around the world love. It has the sea, mountains, food, and a mix of urban centers and resorts. Just as Pyeongchang operated a tourism program for Chinese fans, Busan also plans to work with travel agencies to actively promote the city to attract more Chinese and Japanese tourists,” he said.