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League of our own looking to long term

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2019-08-17 08:47
Tianjin Lions' Li Chen unleashes a pitch against the Beijing Tigers during the opening game of the new China National Baseball League season at Tuanpo Sports Center in Tianjin on Thursday. The Lions won 3-2. LI RAN/XINHUA

Revamped pro competition off to encouraging start as fresh MLB input offers extra hope

Were it not for the sharp crack of the bat, the raucous cheers and drumrolls emanating from Tuanpo Sports Center in Tianjin on Thursday could easily have been mistaken for the noise of a top professional soccer match.

To the surprise of media and even the players, nearly 3,000 fans turned up for the opening match of the China National Baseball League's new season-a welcome boost for everyone involved with the sport here.

"Today the vibe in the stadium was electrifying, making us so nervous but in a good way," said Tianjin Lions' pitcher Du Xiaoci after helping the host beat the Beijing Tigers 3-2 in the opener.

"For athletes like us playing baseball in China, we've been used to playing with little attention, but the new league gives us a stage and a spotlight that we never imagined we could have before," added the 27-year-old national team member.

The revamped four-club league has stepped up to the plate for a third swing at becoming a fully fledged pro program.

Originally established in 2002, the competition was suspended in 2011 and 2017 due to a lack of funding and exposure.

Now there is renewed hope a partnership between the CNBL and Major League Baseball can make the difference this time around.

"For any sport aspiring for long-term growth, it's necessary to have a pro league system established on the top for kids to look up to and to aim for," CNBL commissioner Qin Xiaowen said at the signing ceremony for the agreement in Tianjin on Thursday. "Even though we are far off the professional standards set by the MLB, we are optimistic that with their help we can grow our league into a solid component of our pyramid system."

The new partnership will see the MLB lend its expertise on league management, talent development, competition operation, marketing and broadcasting.

"We share the same understanding that a pro league is essential if China is to become a baseball-playing nation," said Jim Small, senior vice-president of the MLB's international business.

"What we've done is to share the information on how we are set up and how the MLB is operated. From the league standpoint, we've given them some information that we don't share with a lot of people because of the trust we have in China.

"We also share the best practice when it comes to how to market, how to sell tickets and how to show a baseball game on television-things that will make fans' experience more enjoyable."

The goal is to enable the league to stand on its own two feet, without the help of the State-run sports system.

Turning this dream into a reality, however, will not be easy.

Despite the establishment of a league company encompassing the Chinese Baseball Association and its operating partner, Shougang Sports, the competition still features the same four original teams-Beijing, Tianjin, Guangdong and Jiangsu-from 2002, underlining a degree of stagnancy in terms of the sport's development in China.

The four teams will play home and away for 18 rounds over seven weeks before the top two clubs square off in a best-of-five final in late October.

"Although understaffed at the moment, to keep a league running smoothly is critical for motivating youth to stay in the sport to feed the league with talent in the long run," said Chen Xu, president of the CBA.

At grassroots level, the MLB, which established a Beijing office in 2007, has helped cultivate a domestic talent pool through its three development centers in East China's Jiangsu province.

Since the first DC opened in Wuxi in 2009, a total of seven Chinese prospects have graduated through the system to sign tryout or minor-league contracts with MLB clubs, including 'Itchy' Xu Guiyuan (with the Baltimore Orioles in 2015) and 'Sea' Gong Haicheng (with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2017).

While none of the Chinese prospects have seen MLB action, around 20 have suited up for teams in the CNBL this season.

The MLB's help in better identifying the right sort of talent to nurture will be vital, said Kim Ng, a senior vice-president of baseball operations with the league.

"We also help advising on the scouting side, such as how to look for specific characteristics in players and profile them in who will be able to succeed in the league later on," she said.

With the CNBL relaunched and the sport included in the Olympics again at next year's Tokyo Games, baseball is on its way to joining the sports mainstream in China, reckons Small.

"I am absolutely convinced that everybody in China is a baseball fan and they just don't know it yet," said the 57-year-old.

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