Famed baseball manager Joe Torre held court with reporters in Beijing in March during batting practice for an exhibition game between teams from America’s Major League Baseball (MLB). Speaking at the Wukesong Baseball Stadium, Torre offered an old chestnut regarding baseball’s path to success in China.
“It’s all about playing the game and you have to start with the youngsters and give them a chance to enjoy it,” he said. “You have to play the game here and you have to have the baseball fields.”
The two exhibition games, part of MLB’s China Series, were contested by the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres. One MLB executive described the games as baseball’s “coming-out party” in China. The stadium, however, is slated for demolition after the Olympics. This is indicative of the hard road ahead for MLB and baseball in a fast-growing and potentially lucrative sports market.
“It’s going to take a lot of investment and a lot of patience by organizations like MLB to make baseball popular here,” said Nick Griffith, director of Olympic consulting at sports marketing firm Octagon in Beijing.
Baseball isn’t exactly new to China. American missionaries introduced the sport over 100 years ago and the game is said to have once been popular with the People’s Liberation Army. But America’s pastime was banned during the Cultural Revolution and it’s only been in the last 20 years that interest in bang qiu (which literally means “stick ball”) has resurfaced.
Chinese television aired 482 hours of dedicated baseball coverage (both MLB and the domestic Chinese Baseball League) last year. This compares to 23,573 hours of soccer and 9,477 hours of basketball. Baseball is the 12th-ranked sport on television, according to TNS Sport/CSM Media Research.
Pierre Justo, Asia managing director at TNS/CSM in Beijing, said baseball in China is on par with skiing and golf in terms of audience interest and awareness. It’s what his firm rates as a fourth-tier sport, out of a possible five tiers. That puts baseball ahead of even more unknown sports like rugby and cricket.
Justo estimates that baseball’s potential fan base in China is around 20-21% of the urban population between the ages of 15-54. What’s more, it’s a demographic characterized by relatively high levels of education and spending power, which arouse interest among corporate sponsors looking to market their products.
“I’m actually quite positive about baseball in China,” he said. “The big mistake [for MLB] would be to think that there’s no potential in China.”
The message seems to have gotten through. Last year, MLB launched an awareness program called “Play Ball!”, which aims to introduce the sport to 100,000 elementary school students this year. It has also opened 48 MLB merchandise stores in China and signed broadcast deals with Shanghai Media Group and ESPN Star Sports.
When contacted, MLB wouldn’t say how much it has spent promoting baseball in China or how much it spent on the China Series. A spokesman said the China Series was a not-for-profit event aimed at introducing the sport to a new market in Asia.
The region is indeed key to baseball’s international growth. This year’s MLB season opener was played to sell-out crowds in Japan, where the sport has a devoted following. Baseball has also enjoyed success in Korea and Taiwan, thanks to strong local leagues and high-profile exports to US teams.
MLB said that Asia accounts for half its international revenues, and that total revenues last year topped US$6 billion. It will be hoping some of that enthusiasm will rub off on China.
“The Chinese look at baseball as an Asian sport, not just an American sport,” said Jim Small, managing director and vice president for MLB in Asia. “China wants to be the best at everything, particularly the best in Asia, and because their Asian neighbors are so strong in baseball I think the competitive rivalry can help the sport.”
But Taiwan, Korea and Japan have homegrown star players who can galvanize public interest in the game. A national hero has yet to do for baseball what Yao Ming did for basketball in China.
“The key to the growth and popularity [of baseball] in China will be the introduction of a Chinese player to the major leagues,” said San Diego Padres chief executive Sandy Alderson in Beijing.
While no one can predict how long it will take for a player of that caliber to emerge in China, Alderson noted that more people now play baseball in China than in other countries that regularly send players to the US major leagues.
The missing ingredient is a strong domestic baseball league. In basketball, for example, analysts say that the strength of the Chinese Basketball Association contributed to the sport’s skyrocketing popularity. Conversely, the disappointing performance of China’s national soccer team, plus ham-fisted management of the league and allegations of match-fixing, has meant that interest in football is waning among younger viewers.
The Olympic angle
MLB has tried to improve the fortunes of the Chinese national baseball team, even dispatching a former major leaguer to be its manager. But the team’s future is uncertain. Baseball was removed from the program for the 2012 Olympics, which means that government funding for the team will likely evaporate.
Insiders downplayed the negative effect this will have on the sport’s global growth. While no one views China as a do-or-die market for MLB, a thriving baseball culture here could bolster baseball’s case for reinstatement in the 2016 Olympic Games.
“That’s one of the arguments we’re making to the [International Olympic Committee]. China is a growing force in baseball … so why would we want to take that away from the hundreds of thousands of kids playing the game here?” MLB’s Jim Small said.
For the time being, MLB will have to content itself with a smaller, though not insignificant, piece of the sports pie in China.
“Baseball won’t be as easy to develop in China as basketball, but there is still potential as long as there’s a strong strategy,” Justo said.