MLB is spending big to get baseball off the ground in China. The Chinese government sees baseball as a $7.4 billion industry. Within ten years the government and MLB want to build diamonds and academies in a country where baseball was banned once.
With MLB spending hundreds of millions of dollars, it is proof that the organization rather looks for big markets instead of honoring countries with a bigger baseball history.
Anyhow, MLB is looking for players that can get to the MLB as soon as possible. They take the NBA as an example. When Yao Ming made his first steps into the NBA, the popularity of basketball in China exploded. So far China has exported a few players but none made it to the Bigs. To grow the sport in China, it will need a superstar like Yao Ming.
Currently there are 3,000 players on a population of 1.4 billion. The number of 50 baseball stadiums is rather cramped on such a number of players. Especially when you know that about 500 schools have baseball programs and that there is a professional baseball league, the CBL, with six teams (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou, Wuxi and Chengdu).
Besides building its own diamonds, MLB opened development centers at existing high schools in Nanjing, Wuxi and Changzhou to look for talent. At the development centers, promising athletes work on their hitting, fielding and throwing after doing their reading, writing and arithmetic and English lessons.
Since opening those centers, MLB has paid for the education and living expenses for 92 athletes. Normally those players come under the attention of MLB through schools or businesses where a teacher or businessman has introduced the game to the local kids.
It is not that baseball does not have a history in China. Back in the 1930s Babe Ruth visited the country with a barnstorming tour and played vs a local team in Shanghai. But the sport has been banned for a while during Mao’s cultural revolution. Since 1975 the sport is allowed again. Since then MLB has tried to gain ground by providing coaches for Chinese teams in international tournaments and the Olympics, having the Los Angeles Dodgers build a stadium in Tianjin in 1986 and staging the exhibition China Series in 2008.
In January of this year, a big step forward was made when the China Baseball League signed its first national media deal, that gave Le Sports exclusive rights for three years to live stream games. But the biggest step forward for MLB would be if they could sell media and broadcast rights in China. About 710 million people in China are actively using the world wide web.
For a while, Japan financed the CBL but due to heavy losses and baseball disappearing from the Olympic agenda in 2009, the funding was cut. Eventually the league folded in 2012 but a restart was made in 2014. In 2015 the CBL even expanded to two divisions and ten teams. This year an, what should become an annual event, amateur draft was introduced.
When you look to the list with Chinese champions below, you see that there is not a good structure yet. One year they play for the championship in only one game and the next it is a best of five series.
|2002||Tianjin Lions||1||Beijing Tigers||0|
|2003||Beijing Tigers||3||Tianjin Lions||2|
|2004||Beijing Tigers||3||Tianjin Lions||2|
|2005||Beijing Tigers||2||Tianjin Lions||0|
|2006||Tianjin Lions||3||Guangdong Leopards||0|
|2007||Tianjin Lions||3||Guangdong Leopards||1|
|2008||Tianjin Lions||3||Beijing Tigers||0|
|2009||Beijing Tigers||1||Guangdong Leopards||0|
|2010||Guangdong Leopards||2||Beijing Tigers||0|
|2011||Tianjin Lions||2||Guangdong Leopards||1|
|2014||Beijing Tigers||2||Tianjin Lions||1|
|2015||Jiangsu Pegasus||2||Beijing Tigers||0|
But even though MLB has made some progression in China, the growth of the game is slow. Perhaps with the help of the Chinese government, things will speed up. But nevertheless baseball still has a long way to go before baseball will gain a foothold in China.