INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA (AFP) - In baseball-mad South Korea, teams of professional cheerleaders pumping up players and fans with elaborate K-pop routines are as integral to the games as beer and fried chicken.
Imported by American missionaries more than 100 years ago, baseball is South Korea's most cherished spectator sport, beating out even football.
There are no cheerleaders in Major League Baseball in the United States, but they are central to the spectacle in South Korea as they relentlessly dance, cheer and lead the fan chanting throughout entire games.
Even when stadiums were devoid of supporters during the height of the pandemic, the players requested that the cheerleading teams continue to perform every innings, saying it was too depressing without them.
"We usually performed facing the players not the empty seats so we were really able to watch the game and cheer in earnest," 21-year-old Mok Na-gyeong, a cheerleader with the number-one ranked SSG team, told AFP.
"We receive thank-you messages from players saying they got an extra dose of energy from us," she said, adding that players sometimes request tweaks to their "introduction songs".
Every baseball player in South Korea's KBO League has a song written for them by their team. When they step up to the batter's box, their music is blasted out into stadiums and the cheerleaders start dancing.
'Flowers of the game'
Ms Bae Soo-hyun, 37, is South Korea's longest-serving cheerleader and has been performing at SSG Landers Field in Incheon for nearly two decades.
The public perception of cheerleaders has changed, she said, from women in short skirts who dance to professionals who act as a "bridge" between players and fans.
Usually, between four and six SSG cheerleaders perform on a stage in front of one section of the stand.
Their uniform includes a white crop-top with lace over it and silver epaulets, plus wedge trainers to give them extra height.
For Ms Bae and her colleagues, it is a full-time job.
"Without us there wouldn't be coordinated cheeri...