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Can 'Singles Inferno' boost basketball's popularity?

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : Dec. 5, 2023 - 14:49

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A poster for the third season of A poster for the third season of "Single's Inferno" (Netflix)

With the third season of Netflix dating reality show "Singles Inferno" ready to release next week, one participant grabbing the eyes of local basketball fans is Lee Gwan-hee, a brash, outspoken and somewhat-controversial guard playing for the Changwon LG Sakers of the Korea Basketball League.

Lee’s appearance will mark the first time an active professional athlete will appear in the wildly popular show, and fans of the mildly liked KBL are wondering if the publicity will help boost the sport's popularity here.

Producers of the show have heralded a bundle of changes for the new season, saying it will be "rawer and rougher" than previous seasons.

Lee, 35, is among the best-known pro basketball players in South Korea, despite his lack of major accolades like the MVP or the KBL Best 5 -- equivalent to the All-NBA First Team in the NBA. The jersey he wore for the 2023 KBL All-Star Game sold for 1.98 million won ($1,510) at a public auction after the game, higher than any other player who took the floor that night.

The shooting guard is also known among local basketball fans for not shying away from public comments. Such attitude has led to him invoking multiple feuds with older members of the basketball community, something relatively uncommon in a culture where seniority demands respect.

Sakers coach Cho Sang-hyun said in an interview that he "absolutely laughed" when he heard Lee was shooting the reality TV show. "Gwan-hee told me he would fill up the arena (for our team) in December," Cho said. "That's the guy he is. He shows off when he has to."

Lee's bold pledge of urging new fans out to the arena may be a sign of confidence, but it is also based on real necessity: South Korean basketball players in general do not have a parade of fans following them, and the KBL is far from the most popular sports league in the country.

While Lee is among the better-known names, one would have to take great liberty with the word "star" to call him one. Before the release of the dating show's new season, his YouTube channel has a tad under 20,000 subscribers and his Instagram page has some 16,000 followers.

Lee Gwan-hee (Yonhap) Lee Gwan-hee (Yonhap)

The biggest KBL stars at the moment are brothers Heo Ung and Heo Hun -- the sons of Korean basketball legend Hur Jae, the former of whom led voting in the past two All Star Games -- and they have 108,000 and 98,000 followers on Instagram, respectively. In 2022-23, the first KBL season free from crowd restrictions induced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the 10 KBL teams averaged between 1,486 fans and 3,685 fans per game, with the Sakers fourth at 2,305 fans per game.

"I personally welcome any efforts for publicity by basketball players," said a member of an online American basketball-focused fan community called "I Love NBA."

"I hope his popularity will lead to more fans visiting the games. Lee has my support," another member added.

Domestically produced Netflix dating show "Single's Inferno" began streaming in 2021. It garnered worldwide popularity and became the first Korean reality show to make Netflix's global top 10 chart.

The first episode of the third season airs Dec. 12.