Sports  Seoul trained

One McGill alumnus stumbles upon celebrity in the South Korean sports world

Ted Smith – a Calgarian, McGill alumnus (2009), co-founder of the McGill Fight Band, and fervent sinophile – is a brigade leader for South Korean sports teams the Nexen Heroes (baseball) and Anyang Halla (hockey), and a self-described “D-list” celebrity in South Korea.
Henry Gass spoke with him last week on Smith’s last day as an English teacher at a Seoul elementary school.

The McGill Daily: So what exactly do you do at these games?

Ted Smith: In Asian pro sports, in general, they have this thing called the “cheering brigade.” Asian fans, when they go to sports games, like to participate in a really active way and in a really organized way, similar to European soccer, but almost more intricate.

So I started doing this at baseball games. Some guy stands in front and leads the singing and the cheering, and the cheerleaders behind him do dance moves. So I am the guy – I am the leader. I stand up there on a stage with a whistle in my mouth, and I command people to cheer. And they obey.

MD: And did you just start doing this spontaneously?

TS: I was very familiar with this culture. When I moved to Seoul, I started following a team called the Nexen Heroes, and I really liked them – and, of course, just going to all the games, I learned songs. So when I actually had the opportunity to get up on stage, I already knew everything I was supposed to do. So that came very naturally.

Normally nobody gets up and does it. Korean people are very shy, so usually it’ll just be some noisy guy, with maybe an air horn or something like that. At one of the away games, I was standing in front of my friends leading them, and I just said, after the game, “Tomorrow night, why don’t we all go sit down by the stage?” So I went out and bought a whistle the next day, and I came to the game having no idea what was going to happen, whether or not someone was going to try and, like, remove me from the stadium if I actually got up on the stage. So during the second inning – I was so nervous – during the second inning, I just kind of walked onto the stage very suddenly, started blowing my whistle and started bowing.

By the end of the season, when I had gotten enough notoriety, they started just letting me into games. When I was at away games I would usually just go and buy the cheapest nosebleed ticket and then walk through the stadium and be like, “Excuse me, I’m the guy,” and look really self-important, as if I’m really supposed to be there, and people would just open the door for me and not ask questions. Yeah, it got to that point where I would just walk around the league and everyone was like, “Oh, it’s that dancing white man.”

I guess I became a minor celebrity within the Korean baseball world. Most people don’t know my actual name, though. I have all these nicknames that were given to me in Internet chat rooms: “The Blue-Eyed Brigade Leader”; Nextongryeong, which means “The President of Nexen,” or “The Blue-Eyed President of Nexen,” stuff like that.

And my detractors, there are a bunch of people – haters – online as well, they called me Hyeotler, which is a contraction of Hitler – “The Hitler of the Heroes.” On my fan page somebody made a photo composite of me, and the next shot is Joseph Goebbels. He’s giving a speech in Nuremberg, I think, and then there’s me giving a speech at the game, and the pose is almost identical, and the hair style also. The likeness was just incredible.

MD: So you’re a minor celebrity in baseball. What is that relative to a major celebrity in Korea?

TS: No, I am way down on the D-list, for sure.

MD: And are you promoting yourself?

TS: Koreans are really super into tech, and everyone is on Twitter, all the time. So I’ve been trying to leverage – that’s a good business term – social media.

People are very interested in what I’m doing, even if it’s just like a picture of my breakfast. So whatever I’m doing – as per the Twitter credo – I just write a short sentence about it. There are just certain people that are like, “Oh yeah, man. Lamb skewers are delicious!” And there will be like four or five people that just comment back right away.

There’s this maybe six-second clip of me dancing at a game that’s been shown on like six or seven different programs. In April, Choson TV is filming a 12-minute special about me. It’s a program specifically devoted to foreigners that are into Korean stuff. So they do exposes that’ll be like: “Steven Hill, from Mazula, is really into Korean traditional drums.” And he’ll be like, “Oh, yeah! I love drums!” So I’m going to be one of those guys.

MD: Are Nexen good?

TS: They’re fucking brutal. In the early 2000s, they were really good, but then there was a corporate merger between Hyundai and Kia, and they both had baseball teams, and so they had to decide which one to get rid of. And so in that process, they were discarded in a hurry, and the team changed ownership and names a few times, and disintegrated. Everything went to hell.

And because they’re not very good, not very popular, that created a big opportunity for me. If I’d have jumped on the bandwagon with one of the more popular teams, I would not be where I am right now. I never would’ve got the chance to get on the stage. I would’ve just been one of those fans.

MD: So where do you see this going?

TS: I have a whole bunch of stuff going on the fly right now. I’m meeting with the advertising executives from the company that sponsors my baseball team. I’m hoping to do a PR campaign for them about traveling in Korea by car – because they’re a tire company – and then link that up with baseball.

If you become the brigade leader for one of the major teams, then it’s a full-time job. Could I see myself supporting a family of four on this? No, but what I’m really hoping is that, once I start doing this and get my face out there, that it’s going to lead to more possibilities in an entertainment career. I want to be an actor. And that is what I’m focusing on this year – becoming recognizable and then passing an audition.

MD: How’s the fan culture different?

TS: They’re just so much more extreme. Montrealers might be really proud of their little Bell Centre and what have you, with how loud it gets in there or something. I guess Asian fans are just so much more intense and organized. Nobody just shows up in a t-shirt. If you’re a real fan, you own the jersey, and you own the scarf, and you own the wristbands, and you’ve got a flag and stuff. And everybody memorizes all of the songs because, if you don’t, you’re not a real fan.

Back home, at the professional sports level, everyone just wants to be left alone to enjoy the game at their own leisure. And they would hate it if there were people like that bothering them. That’s a really North American thing. Just like, “Leave me alone. Let me watch this game, with my hoagie and my Budweiser.”

If you come up with a new song – you know, “This is my new cheering song for this hockey team” – and you get out there with your drum, people jump on the bandwagon because they think it’s fun. So if I ever tried to do that back home at a Calgary Flames hockey game, like, “Here, I wrote this song. Let’s sing it,” I would get beat up.