When the Lakers named Paul Lee the team’s first Korean-language color commentator this season, his friends all wanted to know one thing.
“When people hear that I get to the do the Lakers broadcasts, they get all excited and ask: ‘Can you take me with you?’ But I actually don’t do it courtside,” said Lee.
In fact, Lee doesn’t even do the games in the same building.
Whether the Lakers are home or away, Lee and his broadcast partner Young Don Lee call the action from El Segundo, deep inside the spacious headquarters for Time Warner Sportsnet and Deportes.
The cable company made a huge bet on the Lakers, forking over an estimated $3 billion to secure regional TV rights for the next two decades. Inside the gleaming new home of the channels are facilities befitting such an investment: state-of-the-art control rooms and studios and an expansive newsroom.
To find the Korean broadcasters, you have to open the door to a small storage room, half of which is used to keep lights and cameras.
With no producer, no engineer, and no staff, the announcers watch the game on a TV smaller than most of us have at home. It’s long way from courtside, but storage room or not, Lee is thrilled to be here.
He lived in Seoul until he was 13, when his family moved to L.A. He fell in love with American sports, and especially enjoyed hearing announcers describe the action, which sounded nothing like the more subdued style he heard in Korea.
“I’m a real big fan of American broadcasting, like the storytelling of Vin Scully, the terminology of Chick Hearn, and the excitement of John Madden,” said Lee. “I’m excited to convey that to the Korean audience.”
He is the rare color commentator who never played the game. Lee says most of his NBA knowledge comes from being a diehard fantasy player. His day job is being a sportswriter at The Korea Times of Los Angeles.
There are more than 300,000 Koreans in the greater Los Angeles area, 70 percent of whom don’t speak English at home.
Given those numbers are only getting bigger, Time Warner Sportsnet Senior Vice-President and General Manager Mark Shuken says the Korean broadcast is overdue.
“We had the Korean community really speak up about the Lakers,” said Shuken. “As we looked into who are Lakers fan we saw that after the Hispanic community and the general community, the Korean community was the next largest. Simultaneously we had conversations with the Lakers and Jeanie Buss and Dr. Buss and when we shared this idea with them, they were thrilled by it.”
It became much easier technically to broadcast in Korean this season. That’s because the secondary audio programming channel reserved for Spanish opened up after Time Warner started Deportes.
Could Korean Laker fans one day get a network of their own, too? Yes, but probably not on TV as we know it now, says Shuken.
“I think digital distribution of media and the way that people ultimately will receive their media will make it a lot easier, less expensive and more easily accessible for any version of content,” said Shuken. “Once we can figure out the economics and the protection of the rights holder and the content provider in those streams you could see a Lakers game with 10 different languages supporting it all through a digital stream.”
The NBA broadcasts about 24 games, featuring multiple teams, in South Korea. Shuken says the league has expressed interest in expanding to more games in the next year or two, using the Lakers’ feed.
For now, he says he’s trying to avoid the mistake he’s seen other media companies make – only changing the language with little sensitivity to cultural differences.
“We always have to ask the fans in the community what they want and then deliver as opposed to telling them why they like that which we bring,” said Shuken.
The general manager says he’s still figuring out what Korean fans want. For example, there’s not even a way of measuring how many people tune in yet.
What he’s found with the Spanish-language audience is that stories matter more than statistics and that they watch more as families.
“The stereotype of a general market customer might be a couple guys in a bar,” said Shuken. “I think the general understanding we have of the Hispanic community is it’s much more of multigenerational familial gathering.”
Paul Lee agrees that Korean fans care more about the stories, and he tries to appeal to those who haven’t necessarily heard of the Princeton offense. So far, Lee says the biggest complaint has been about how he says players’ names: Should he use the English or the Korean pronunciation?
“Am I supposed to say Meta World Peace (with an English pronunciation) or Meta World Peace (with Korean pronunciation?) Some will say I’m showing off," said Lee. "Then, if I use chopped off Korean English, they’ll say I’m using broken English, and 'Can’t they find someone who speaks English better?'”
For now, Lee is saying it both ways. You can’t please everyone, but at least he and his partner will be moving out of the storage room soon.
They still won’t be at the games, but Time Warner is building them a proper sound booth.