China, MLB ready to play ball


BEIJING -- Major League Baseball will play its first games in China in March and hopes to broadcast them on local television in a push to internationalize America's pastime, league executives said here Thursday.

MLB, which earned $6 billion in revenue in 2007, is huge in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but so far China has contributed little due to minimal TV coverage. Moreover, the game is due to make its last appearance as an Olympic sport for the foreseeable future in August in Beijing.

"We are here to show that baseball is truly a world game and worthy of being in the Olympics," said Paul Archey, MLB senior vp international business operations. "The potential to grow the sport in China is tremendous."

Unlike the National Basketball Assn., which over 20 years here has built China into its second-largest fan base, MLB began its first major push here last fall when it first licensed the All-Star Game, the World Series and "Baseball This Week" to Shanghai Media Group.

Ratings were "good," said MLB Asia vp Jim Small, but peanuts compared to Japan, where NHK, Fuji TV, TBS, and Sky Perfect broadcast 300 MLB games annually to 200 million viewers.

"The first MLB games in China will have carriage on Chinese TV, but it's too early to announce where," Small said. "We got our permits in December and have just begun talks with broadcaster options."

Tokyo-based Small, who helped open MLB's first China office in Beijing this month, said the league was in talks with SMG, provincial broadcasters and state flagship China Central Television.

But the president of dedicated sports channel CCTV5, Jiang Heping, said in a telephone interview that MLB had not yet been in touch.

Before mugging for photos with Chinese boys in baseball uniforms, Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre and San Diego Padres vp and Hall of Famer Dave Winfield said their teams would face off in spring training games March 15-16.

The China Baseball Assn., the oversight body of the six-team China Baseball League, will host the two games at the 12,000-seat Beijing Olympics baseball venue.

The CBA and the MLB, through youth training programs, have brought baseball a long way since it was banned in 1960 as a capitalist sport by Mao Zedong, founder of Communist China.

Although many Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese players have joined Major League Baseball's ranks in recent years, only five from China have made it to the bigs. One is retired and four signed last June.

MLB Players Assn. chief operating officer Gene Orza said it was catcher Wang Wei, representing Team China, who hit the first ever home run (vs. Japan) in the 2006 MLB-organized World Baseball Classic.

"Baseball taps some of the refined things that Chinese like," Orza said. "Chinese like ballet. There's lots of ballet in baseball. Football's played by brutes, but baseball's played by poets. Once they see and understand it, Chinese will love the game as we do."

Along with China's pre-season games, the 2008 baseball season's first pitch will actually be thrown in Asia, with the first regular season game between the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the Oakland Athletics on March 25 at the Tokyo Dome.

MLB seems poised to succeed where its autumn rival the National Football League failed. Set to play an exhibition game between the Super Bowl-bound New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks at Beijing's Workers Stadium August 8-one year before the start of the Olympics-the game was postponed until 2009.