Sports in China: MLB’s Latest Attempt


The history and development of sports in China is quite an interesting topic, if you have the time or energy to look into it.

Obviously there have always been different sports or sport like activities in the country, but the idea of organized sports has really grown over the past few decades.

Looking at the past few Summer Olympic medal results, you would think that China has long been a sports powerhouse. But take a look back just a few years and you will see that this has been an extremely recent development.

In a nation of over one and a half billion people, you would assume that there would be people capable of becoming world-class athletes in practically any sport. The recent Summer Olympics’ results would possibly confirm this. Curiously though, there has not been much impact on the different professional sports leagues around the world.

While sports like rugby have seen their professional leagues include athletes from much smaller nations, such as Fiji, Eastern European players have had a strong presence in the National Hockey League (NHL) in North America (as well as other ice hockey leagues around the world), and India, the closest competitor to China in terms of overall population numbers, has produced a large number of top-tier cricket players, there has not been much impact from China in any professional league.

by robert via wikimedia commons

The closest we have come was when Yao Ming joined the National Basketball Association (NBA). He was not the first Chinese athlete to play in the NBA, but he was by far the most successful. It was this success that helped the NBA’s popularity, and the popularity of basketball overall, explode inside Mainland China.

For years you have been able to watch NBA games on local Chinese television stations, purchase NBA clothing (both real and fake), and have seen NBA stars used in advertising for Chinese companies’ products. While this has not led to the floodgates opening and large numbers of further Chinese basketball players joining the league since then, it has been a huge financial boon for the league and the NBA has worked hard to foster its relationship with the country.

At the moment the impact from players seems to be going the other way, with aging all-stars coming to finish their careers playing for Chinese basketball teams in the local leagues. This is similar to what the US has seen with its Major League Soccer (MLS) and the influx of soccer/football players.

by Flamelai via wikimedia commons

Of course the same can be said for the professional soccer leagues in China as well. The popularity of soccer/football across China is huge, but all of the focus comes from other countries’ leagues and superstar teams, such as Manchester United, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich.

While there is wide spread love for the sport, there is practically no export of local footballers to play in top-level professional leagues around the world, which is surprising. I highly recommend the book “Bamboo Goalposts” if you would like to learn more about this topic!

All of this brings me to the main focus on this article: Major League Baseball’s (MLB) attempt to crack the local Chinese market. Baseball has not found the large-scale success that basketball and soccer/football have so far in Mainland China.

While there is a professional baseball league in China, the number of teams is quite small and the overall exposure of the league is practically non-existent. Having seen a few games several years ago, I would say the overall skill level of the athletes involved is also fairly low.

by via wikimedia commons

Just before the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, Major League Baseball decided to test the waters. Towards the end of Spring Training they sent the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres to play two games in the temporary baseball stadium that had been built to host the baseball games taking place during the Olympics.

I was lucky enough to be living in Beijing at the time, and I attended both games. At the time I was writing articles for a short-lived sports website, and I wrote about my experiences during these games. I wish I could find those articles now to reference, but they are lost to history…My main memories are as follows:

• The stadium was very far outside of the main part of the city, and especially far from where the vast majority of expats lived.
• The teams that came to play were mainly filled with minor leaguers who had no chance of making the major league team.
• Joe Torre, the manager of the Dodgers at the time, was not a very friendly guy.
• Andruw Jones, who had just left the Atlanta Braves to sign a huge free agent contract with the Dodgers, was extremely fat and out of shape, causing me to correctly predict a disaster of a season ahead.
• I sat next to Pepe Yniguez, one of the Spanish language broadcasters for the Dodgers, and he was able to introduce me to several players after the game (including George Lombard, who I had known about for years because he had been a superstar athlete in the Atlanta area in high school).
• Finally, the local crowd, which did make up the majority of people in attendance, had no idea about the rules of the game or what was going on, often leading to cheering at the wrong times, among other things.
• MLB did try to play to the local crowd by including a Taiwanese player, who always received the loudest ovation. I wonder how he felt about it all, due to the always-contentious relationship between Mainland China and “Taiwan Province,” as it is officially known in Mainland China.

During one of these games I met a man who was working with MLB to try to bring baseball to the grassroots level. There was already supposedly a baseball development school that had been created in the city of Wuxi, although I was unable to find anyone there who had actually heard of it. But this man’s plan was to become involved with a local elementary school to try to teach the students baseball and hope it spread from there.

Being interested in both education and baseball, I went to meet the principal of the school and see first hand what was actually going on. The reality was quite different from what was explained to me earlier though, as the principal was more interested in the man teaching English to the students (in a traditional classroom type environment) and the guy thought he could “teach English” by having the students play baseball in the courtyard of the school building. Needless to say, I don’t think it worked out in the long run.

Fast forward 7 years and I am back in China, but now in the city of Suzhou. In the years since this initial MLB experience in China, I have not seen or heard much about baseball in China. I have noticed there are several MLB stores in the upscale malls that are selling “official MLB apparel.” This tends to be New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and the occasional other team’s shirts, hats, and jackets. The strange thing, for me anyways, is the fact that these items are usually in completely different color schemes than the real team colors.

I have become accustomed to the pink (and other, more traditionally “feminine” colors) baseball hats and clothing that MLB has been making over the years in an attempt to appeal to the female audience. And I have seen various alternative hats, jerseys, and other things that teams have worn, and more importantly sold to customers looking for something different than the traditional team gear. But seeing yellow Yankees shirts and things like this in these new MLB stores in China still felt wrong for some reason.

After a recent weekend visit to a local shopping center, I am now seeing a broader picture of the MLB attempt to influence the hearts and minds of the local Chinese population. Spread across the central walkway separating Starbucks from a high-end furniture store were several kiosks and a fenced in “baseball diamond.”

Each kiosk featured a different game for people to play, with most of them relating to baseball in some way. There was also a large video screen that was playing a loop of baseball highlights from the current MLB season, as well as messages that I assume had something to do with baseball (they were in Chinese, so I am not completely sure, although they often involved Chinese men dressed in baseball uniforms attempting to look like they were playing baseball after reading their lines to the camera).

The first thing that drew me like a moth to a flame was the batting cage. I think it has been close to 20 years since I have attempted to hit a baseball, but I felt pretty good about my chances after watching some of the local patrons giving it a try. I asked the person who looked like he was responsible for it if I could try. He said I needed to use the camera on my phone to scan the QR code using WeChat (a local Twitter like app). Being stuck in the 20th century in some ways, I do not use WeChat, which greatly confused the worker. But he still let me try to hit, and I have to say I did fairly well. Of course the machine didn’t throw the ball very fast, but at this point in my life I will take what I can get!

I then wandered around to the other kiosks, quickly realizing that each one gave a stamp on a business card sized ticket after playing the game. After receiving a stamp from each kiosk, you could turn the ticket in for a prize, which consisted of a poster, wristbands, or baseball cards. I will admit that when I was in college I was the guy that would sign up for a credit card in order to get a free t-shirt or beach towel. This is one of the reasons I had about 10 credit cards that were all maxed out when I moved overseas! But for a baseball starved person living in China, there was absolutely nothing that was going to stop me from getting one of those posters!

There were several takeaways from this experience. First of all, I was not the oldest person having a go at hitting the ball in the batting cage or some of the other activities. But I was probably at least 30 years older than the vast majority of people who were actually trying to collect every stamp in the hopes of getting a prize.

Secondly, every kiosk wanted me to scan its QR code for the sponsor of that kiosk, and I am pretty sure I was the only adult that did not use WeChat, which caused confusion every time I tried to play the game.

Third, even as a middle-aged man whose best sport was never baseball, I felt like a superstar compared to my fellow competitors. I am sure it is how many of the foreign exchange students who came to the US years ago (and possibly still today) felt when they would join the school soccer team. And watching everyone else try to do things that came natural to me brought me as much amusement as when my friends from other countries watch me try to play soccer or swing a cricket bat.

But it all has to start somewhere. People have to learn about a sport and practice it before they can ever become good at it. I am sure MLB is hoping they can find at least a few major league level talents out of the country one day, just like the NBA and various professional soccer/football leagues hope as well. And if the only thing that comes out of it ends up being an audience of one and a half billion people who are willing to pay money for apparel and watch games on television with further advertising income, than that is ok too!

So when I looked at the brochure being given out to everyone with the rules of the game being explained step-by-step, with helpful illustrations, I thought back to the two games I watched in Beijing years ago. I also thought back to the first soccer matches I attended when I was in college, having to ask my friends what the rules were because I had absolutely no idea. And I thought of how this initial exposure, coupled with a video game connected to the World Cup that was going on at the time, increased my interest in the sport and led me to also begin watching matches on television and purchasing jerseys and other apparel of clubs from around the world. It worked on me, and it could work for MLB in China too.

And then I looked at the players chosen for the poster (which I did eventually get, with the help of my wife) and thought how Chinese kids would now be interested in learning more about Mike Trout, Robinson Cano, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Kershaw, and…Jeremy Guthrie? Seriously, MLB went with Jeremy Guthrie as one of its faces of baseball in China? Well, thankfully no one seemed to have any idea how bad an idea this was. That is the good thing about coming into a new market I guess. Now I can’t wait to join the Suzhou chapter of the Jeremy Guthrie fan club!

Next: Visiting Baseball When I Travel

More from TripSided