Selling baseball in China costly, rewarding
EmptyBEIJING -- Selling baseball in China won't be easy or cheap. Of course, the rewards in a country with 1.3 billion people could be enormous.
Enter Major League Baseball, which worked for years to put together this weekend's two exhibition games in Beijing between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, the first MLB games in China.
There's a lot riding on it. It's the first test of the Olympic baseball venue, and MLB's boldest attempt to attract Chinese fans, most of whom follow only basketball or soccer and know little of the game of "bangqiu."
And it underscores MLB's search for Chinese talent, hoping to come up with the kind of stars who have moved to the U.S. from Asian neighbors Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. One big name like basketball's Yao Ming could bring local TV coverage, merchandising and billions in revenue -- the kind of money the NBA already earns in the country.
"Baseball is really going to take off right after the Olympics," said Jim Lefebvre, the former major leaguer who has coached China's national team for five years. "Someday in the future, we will say these games jump-started baseball in China."
"This is a big moment. How long have we tried to get this?"
MLB officials are optimistic — and up against history.
Baseball traces its pitch in China back to 1863 when, according to MLB research, an American named Henry William Boone formed the Shanghai Baseball Club. Babe Ruth and Casey Stengel have played in China and MLB claims baseball was the "unofficial sport" of the People's Liberation Army during the civil war 60 years ago.
Like other Western influences, it disappeared during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.
"This isn't about money," Dodgers chairman Frank McCourt said. "It is expensive to make these steps, and it's going to take resources to sustain it. It's not about two exhibition games, it's about bringing the game in a full-fledged way to this great country."
Commissioner Bud Selig is attending the games, along with dozens of MLB executives. The Dodgers and Padres have brought over a half-dozen players likely to be on their 25-man opening day rosters, and the games will be shown live in San Diego and Los Angeles despite the 15-hour time difference.
"Baseball is kind of a natural in China," said Ed Burns, an MLB vice president who works with Lefebvre and the Chinese Baseball Association. The CBA's national team has a few players who might make a top American university team, but it's mostly second-line talent. That may change in the next few years if Chinese sports authorities decide baseball's a priority and top athletes are moved from other sports.
"The weather in China is almost identical to the U.S. -- northern and southern climes," Burns said. "You've got the natural rivalries with Korea and Japan and Taiwan. They (Chinese) can see lots of other Asians have had success at the highest level."
China is famous for building things quickly: Olympic venues went up in record time, and the world's largest airport terminal was finished in just four years. Some believe a mainland Chinese players could make the major leagues in two or three years. Some say it will take a decade. But everybody seems to think it will happen.
"It may be a slow process, but once it starts blossoming I think you are going to see a number of players from China making an impact," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. "We all have to put in the time right now and be patient."
Perhaps 100,000 children are involved in baseball in China, some enrolled in two youth programs funded by MLB. But the impact seems scant, a bit like cricket in North America. History's first international cricket match took place in the U.S. in 1844, but the sport never developed roots.
"It will take a little time," said Hong-chih Kuo, a Dodgers left-hander from Taiwan. Fellow Taiwan shortstop Chin-lung Hu also may make the team, along with South Korean pitcher Chan-ho Park.
"Maybe in a couple of years there will be a player from China," Kuo added. "We will see. You never know."
There are big obstacles.
Although the game will be seen on TV in the U.S., there's no coverage in China.
Baseball is also expensive in China, and equipment is nearly impossible to find.
Ticket prices for the two exhibition games this weekend range between 50 and 1,280 yuan, or $7 for the cheap seats and $180 for boxes. Both games are expected to be sold out, but many fans will be foreigners living in China.
Zhang Yufeng, the captain of China's national team and one of Lefebvre's players, said baseball equipment in China was too expensive for most Chinese. A ball can cost $14 and a real wood bat about $140, still costly in an economy that's booming.
"Baseball is an elite sport," Zhang said. "It requires special equipment and fields. You pay that much for a bat and you can break it so easy. And clothes and gloves are also expensive. So it's difficult to get a team together."
"China's national sport is ping-pong, no doubt. All you need is a ball and a paddle."
Dropped from the Olympics in 2012, baseball is hoping to get back in with a good show this summer. It could return in 2016, but only if the Europe-dominated IOC votes it back. Even if baseball is popular this summer in Beijing, the new Olympic venue is almost certain to be razed and replaced by a shopping mall and apartments.
That would leave China's capital without a top-class baseball venue, seeming to spoil decades of effort.
"It would be unfortunate if these facilities were not to remain because they are ideal for the further development of the game," said Padres CEO Sandy Alderson. "Losing baseball in the Olympics and the funding was a real blow to baseball."
Getting it going in China would help.