Soccer has been catching most headlines in trying to conquer China. But the long term strategy to root baseball into the country might offer more chances for success, writes Beida business professor Jeffrey Towson at his weblog. “Major League Baseball (MLB) Is Copying the NBA in China – And It Might Work.”
The NBA has long provided free public access to its games in China. Starting in 1987 state broadcaster China Central Television began showing weekly game highlights that the NBA sent on video tapes to Beijing. This was particularly good timing as CCTV then had little competition for viewers and Michael Jordan was becoming a big draw. The NBA has continued to provide free access since, most recently via a deal for online streaming with Tencent Holdings.
MLB has put in place a similar free mass dissemination strategy. Since around 2008, MLB games have been shown on more than 10 government TV channels, reaching most of the population. Under a three-year deal signed in January, Le Sports, an affiliate of online streaming company Leshi Internet Information & Technology, is streaming 125 live games in China per season.
These are the early moves in a long-term strategy. The Chinese Baseball Association was only formed in 2002 and MLB did not have a China office until 2007. According to Leon Xie, managing director of MLB China, there were then only three real baseball diamonds in all of China.
MLB is very unlikely to create a phenomenon as big as Yao Ming but it is working to develop Chinese players. MLB opened its first training camp in the country in 2009, in the eastern city of Wuxi. Training centers have also opened in Changzhou and Nanjing. Some younger players have gone to the U.S. to play in elite high school leagues. In 2015, Xu Guiyuan became the first player trained in Wuxi to sign with an MLB club, joining the Baltimore Orioles.
Players at the training centers are now playing over 100 games a year and often moving directly onto Chinese university baseball teams upon graduation. The number of baseball diamonds in China has grown to over 50. And the official Chinese Baseball League, which had gone dormant, was relaunched in 2014 in partnership with property developer Hengda Lianghe Investment.
As shown by the success of the NBA’s Jeremy Lin, Chinese consumers can also become very enthusiastic about Asian-American athletes. Given that baseball is popular in the U.S. and Taiwan, these could be sources for high-profile ethnic Chinese players. For example, Chinese-American Ray Chang, born in Kansas City, has been playing for minor league teams for more than a decade and is now on a team affiliated with the Cincinnati Reds.
Are you looking for more stories by Jeffrey Towson? Do check out this list.