Saturday, April 3, 2010

Chasing The Dragon: Baseball's Quest To Conquer China

When the Yankees face the Red Sox tomorrow night, the largest viewing audience might not be in the United States:
For the first time, Major League Baseball's season opener will be televised live in China, broadcast by five outlets reaching nearly 300 million viewers, MLB announced Friday. The All-Star Game, postseason games and "This Week in Baseball" also will be broadcast in China this year as part of baseball's partnerships with 90 international broadcasters.
It's hard to tell how many of those 300 million Chinese residents who have the option of watching the first game of the regular season will actually tune into the broadcast. After all, it will be about 8:15 on Monday morning in Shanghai and Beijing when the first pitch is thrown.

Aside from American ex-pats, there are few MLB fans in China, especially in comparison to the population of over 1.3 billion. While around 16% of Chinese residents surveyed say they are interested in baseball, fewer than one percent of identify themselves as "loyal fans". Furthermore, that survey likely overestimates the interest due to sampling error. It's impossible to project the results of that study onto the entire population considering that there are hundreds of millions of Chinese that lack access to phone and close to a billion without internet connections and therefore couldn't be reached by conventional survey means.

However, where some might see a country that doesn't care much about baseball, Major League Baseball sees a tremendous opportunity.

After witnessing basketball achieve true global success - now with established professional leagues on all six inhabited continents - the MLB has become increasingly tantalized by the international market. While the sporting landscape in the United States is becoming more saturated by the day, baseball envisions adding new fans by popularizing the game overseas. China, with its massive population, appears to be the largest and potentially most profitable untapped resource for the expansion of the game.

Xie Long, the managing director of MLB China explained, "I believe the sport of baseball has tremendous potential in China. What MLB wants is to agitate this big market and get more people playing baseball in China".

The World Baseball Classic was established with the goal of expanding the game abroad in mind. While the title of the tournament is ultimately decided between countries with established baseball traditions like the U.S., Japan, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and South Korea, encouraging nations like the Netherlands, South Africa and especially China to field teams demonstrates that there are other motives at work. By tapping into national pride via international competition, baseball believes it can generate interest in the sport on a level that extends beyond a tournament that only happens once every three years.

As the largest and most widely recognized name in baseball and in all of American sports, the Yankees have been leading the charge throughout China. They have some goals that are separate from the MLB's (selling Yankee-branded merchandise, etc) but the ultimate aim is the same - to generate interest in the sport worldwide.

Back in early February, executives representing the team embarked on a week-long trip - with their newest World Series trophy in tow - throughout Asia. They stopped in Hong Kong, Beijing and Tokyo, shaking hands, posing for pictures and participating in events and ceremonies. Brian Cashman and Randy Levine were at the front of the pack, glad-handing their way through China and Japan, giving out free Yankees shirts and caps.

Due to the presence of Hideki Matsui on their roster over the past seven years and the ubiquity of baseball in Japan, Tokyo was an obvious stop. The presence on the Chinese capital (Beijing) and its financial center (Hong Kong) on the itinerary were less self-explanatory.


Baseball has been played in China for almost 150 years, beginning when an American medical missionary and native New Yorker named Henry William Boone started spreading the game there with a missionary zeal in the early 1860's. However, today, like it did then, baseball exists only fringe of the Chinese sporting landscape, far behind pursuits like basketball, badminton and table tennis.

In the first years of its introduction to China, baseball quickly began to develop a foothold. The Shanghai Baseball Club was created shortly after Boone first began teaching the game and served as a posh social establishment for the next forty or so years. Around the same time, students in the Chinese Educational Mission began traveling to the United States and returned to their home country with a fondness for what, at that point, was a quirky and decidedly American game.

By the mid-1890's three western-oriented colleges in China had organized baseball teams. But it wasn't until 1905 that a game was staged between two all-Chinese squads on the mainland. After the Russo-Japanese War, which ended that same year, many Chinese students flooded into Japan, where inter-collegiate baseball had become Nippon's preeminent national sport.

While baseball was still far from common in China, it began to attain some historical and political significance in the 1910's. Sun Yat-sen, who learned the game during the spent time in Hawaii as a teenager, was said to have used baseball as a way to train soldiers to throw hand grenades in Changsha, the notoriously unstable capital of the Hunan Province. Years later, soldiers in the People's Liberation Army would embrace the game to such an extent that it would be commonly referred to as "junqiu" or "army ball".

Despite the country's early introduction to baseball, its popularity among students returning from abroad and the game's intertwinement with military history, baseball never achieved the popularity it did in Japan, Korea, Taiwan or even the Philippines. A legitimate professional league was never established, much less embraced.

Eventually, during the reign of Mao Zedong, baseball all but disappeared from China's sporting landscape. Some historians claim that the sport was explicitly banned because it was perceived as a symbol of "Western decadence", but whether or not that was the case, the spread of the game was squelched by Mao's ethnocentric Cultural Revolution.

After Chairman Mao's death in 1979, baseball slowly began to reemerge. Coaches from the U.S. were sent on goodwill missions. The game was used as a vehicle of diplomacy between China and Japan. Youth leagues began to sprout up. This time though, the Chinese took their cues from Japanese style of play instead of the American one.

Major League Baseball's involvement in China didn't begin in earnest until Dodgers' president Peter O'Malley made a visit to the Tianjin Physical and Cultural Center Institute in 1986 and paid for a baseball field to be constructed there. Ever since, the MLB has been making inroads into China, ranging from the grand gestures like the ones made by O'Malley - and more recently by the Yankees - to grassroots efforts to introduce the game to the school systems and establishing youth baseball academies and development centers.

The Yankees, like many of the larger MLB franchises, are particularly tantalized by the untapped resources of talent China may hold. Discovering a player with superstar talent could accelerate the spread of the came throughout the country in ways no contrived ceremonies, press tours, or even youth academies could hope. An article from The Economist explains:
Somewhere in China, reasons Mr Cashman, there is a kid who can throw a baseball at 98mph (158kph). Find him, turn him into a star and he will awaken a nation of fans. He points to the spectacular commercial success of America’s National Basketball Association (NBA) in China after the recruitment of the seven-and-a-half-foot Yao Ming, from Shanghai, to the Houston Rockets, whose jerseys are a ubiquitous presence on the backs of Chinese children.
Just based on sheer probability, there has to be a Yao Ming of baseball in China, somewhere, right? Maybe he's working in a rice paddy or toiling away in a factory, oblivious to the talents he possesses. Perhaps he's fishing somewhere on the Yangtze River or working in a marketplace in Shanghai. With such a massive number of capable and athletic men calling the the Peoples' Republic home, there has to be a few who would be good at baseball if given the chance, doesn't there?

Unfortunately, it's not that simple.


Basketball has been alive and well in China for over 100 years. James Naismith created the game at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891 and within four years it had traveled across the Y's worldwide network all the way to China. Basketball has been a part of Chinese culture almost as long as baseball has been played in Japan.

Baseball was introduced in Japan in 1872 and it took another 92 years for the first Japanese player, Masanori Murikami, to reach the Major Leagues. To be sure, there were a host of technological and cultural factors that hindered that initial introduction like arduous and expensive travel and rampant xenophobia that won't prevent the first Chinese player from making that trip. However, the notion that any country harbors Major League talent based on sheer probability is slowly being eroded.

Yao Ming wasn't just discovered by chance. His parents were both professional basketball players and in addition to being freakishly tall and athletic, Yao devoted countless hours to perfecting his craft during his teenage years. He started playing professionally at age 17, and was pressured to enter the NBA draft at 19 but held out until he was 22. When he finally declared his eligibility, he was surrounded by a team of advisors who carefully controlled every aspect of his professional life. Although he was bestowed a great set of genes, Yao wasn't born a great basketball player.

To an even greater extent, great baseball players are made, not born. Yao's 7' 6" frame gives him a physical advantage that doesn't have an analog in baseball. His height allows his easy access to the hoop whereas there are no distinguishing bodily features that guarantee an advantage in baseball. A perfect physiology isn't as important as an ideal throwing motion or batting swing and those have to be honed over time with the assistance of knowledgeable coaches.

In addition to its considerable history in the country, basketball has a lower learning curve than baseball. It requires less - and less expensive - equipment and can be played in a smaller area either indoors or out. In terms of rules and fundamentals, it's far simpler than baseball too.

As Chris Jaffe demonstrated in his book Evaluating Baseball's Managers, widespread knowledge of what are now considered to be the fundamentals of baseball are slow to form. Jaffe explains:
Fundamentals first have to be developed. Then they diffuse. Next, their instruction becomes institutionalized. Once the lessons become second nature to one generation, the next wave can be fully and immediately immersed in them.
It took baseball decades to establish the baseline of common knowledge of the game that we now take for granted. Kids in China don't grow up watching baseball games. They don't play stickball in the streets. They mostly choose between basketball, badminton and table tennis. There is no sport with significant popularity similar to baseball like cricket in India. There isn't even one that requires a hard throwing motion which could be roughly translated to pitching.


Two years ago, a California sports management company created a reality show called The Million Dollar Arm to try to coax pitching talent out of India, offering a prize of $100,000 and the chance to compete for a $1M contract to the winner. Eventually, out of 37,000 entrants, two were chosen. Danesh Patel threw 90 mph during his tryout and won the top prize. Rinku Singh clocked in at 84 and was given $2,500 along with the chance to play in the minor leagues. Their management company held a tryout attended by 30 Major League scouts. Singh and Patel were signed by the Pirates for $10,000 apiece.

They were eventually assigned to the Pirates Rookie Ball team in Bradenton, Florida where they recorded a buoyant account of their journeys in broken English on a blog that carried the same name as the contest. Combined, Patel and Singh each recorded a win but only pitched a total of 18 2/3 innings in their first season. They returned to India last fall and are back in minor league Spring Training now.

Although the Million Dollar Arm contest only staged tryouts in 12 cities, it sampled a wide swath of talent in India, a country which has a fondness for cricket - baseball's closest sporting relative. If the best a nationwide search in India with a (potential) million dollar prize could produce were two low level minor leaguers without much chance of making the Big Leagues, much less becoming a star in them, is it realistic to expect China to do much better?


Spreading a sport to a new country, especially a game as complex, equipment heavy and open-space-dependent as baseball to a nation as impoverished and overcrowded as China, is a tough road to hoe. It's going to require the same missionary enthusiasm employed by Henry William Boone when the game was first introduced to the residents of Shanghai back in the 1860's, along with money. Lots and lots of money.

As baseball officials discovered in their quest to provide funding to a youth program in Cambodia, it requires not only a significant amount of cappital but close and careful oversight of the way those funds are allocated. Where money is being given away, there will always be those who are willing to take it but don't have the ultimate goal in mind.

Even if the programs are successful, will they end up like youth soccer in America where the participation rates are high but yield relatively few fans of the highest levels of the game? Right now the MLB claims that over four million people in China play baseball, but before this most recent initiative, MLB games were hardly televised at all.

The MLB has to consider its efforts in China as a long term investment and one that might not pay dividends for decades, if ever. However, Jim Small, vice president of MLB Asia thinks it could happen faster than that:
We plan on taking advantage of the dynamic climate that is taking place in China right now. With so many things changing so quickly, with information much more accessible through the internet and through other means, it is possible to make changes much quicker now than 10 years ago.
Will those in the People's Republic be watching when the Yankees and Red Sox meet in Fenway on Sunday night? Will they remember to watch the All-Star game when it rolls around three and a half months from now and the postseason 11 weeks after that?

When it comes to expanding the interest in the game of baseball worldwide, China represents the largest potential gain. But that doesn't mean that it's the best bet. It doesn't even necessarily mean that it's a risk worth taking. However the MLB, like any corporation, is set up with the implicit goal of infinite growth and profits. When viewed through that lens, China appears to be a gamble baseball has to take.


  1. Fantastic read- raises some provocative questions along with a surprisingly detailed history of baseball in the country.
    I would love to try to find baseball's Yao, but you're exactly right about the problems with baseball as opposed to basketball, both in terms of physicality and the history of the sport in China. Its particularly interesting that the contest in India yielded so little, and makes me a little more hesitant to suggest something similar be done in China. I do hope that this keeps up though and becomes more than just what soccer is in the States

  2. GREAT article!!! Love how in-depth the history of baseball in China is, and the discussion of the problems with expanding baseball to countries like China (equipment-heavy game in impoverished countries, for example).

    I do think MLB has to try, but whether or not it will be a success is a whole different story -- keep articles like this coming throughout the season as these issues pop up!!!