The new season of the China Baseball League (CBL) will open next week but finds itself bending to the needs of the Beijing Olympic Games.
For the first time in CBL history the season will be divided into two stages to accommodate the Olympics. The first half runs from April 11 to May 11. The season will resume on September 5 and conclude on October 12.
There will be six teams competing in the new season - Beijing Tigers, Tianjin Lions, Sichuan Dragons, Guangdong Leopards, Shanghai Eagles and Jiangsu Hopestars. They are divided into two conferences - the Southwest Conference, which includes Beijing, Tianjin and Sichuan, and the Southeast Conference.
The top two teams in each conference will advance to the playoffs after 63 regular-season games. The league title will then be decided in a best-of-five championship series. The champions of the season will then travel to Tokyo in November to play in the Asian Baseball Series alongside league-winning teams from South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
"I am glad to unveil the new season of China Baseball League, which has grown from nowhere into a popular tournament," said Lei Jun, head of CBL. "We have come a long way in the past six years and have improved the league step by step. What we have achieved is a treasure for Chinese baseball and for every fan."
Beijing and Tianjin, who have split the previous six league titles, are once again heavy favorites this season. The other four teams have struggled to compete with the duo in past seasons, although last year Guangdong upset Beijing in the playoffs, becoming the first team in league history other than Beijing or Tianjin to make it to the CBL championship series.
Games this season may be more competitive, however, as most of the league's top players won't play in the first half of the season in order to fully focus on their Olympic preparations.
Organizers say that although the quality of the games in the first half may suffer somewhat due to the absence of those players, the younger players will have more opportunities to display their potential.
"We need to ensure the training of our national team first," said Shen Wei, secretary-general of the association.
It presents a dilemma for national baseball authorities, who are trying to help the national team so that it can do well in August's Beijing Games. At the same time CBL is trying to develop baseball in China after the Olympics, and losing so much talent for the first half of the season could potentially damage that progress.
The successful Major League Baseball China Series last month in Beijing gave CBL some inspiration to accelerate the development of the six-year league.
"I sincerely hope that the league can develop more interest from the Chinese public in the sport. I hope it can attract more youngsters and even change the lifestyles of more families after they watch some games," Lei said."
The opening game of the season will be between Beijing and Sichuan, followed by a feature game between last year's two finalists Tianjin and Guangdong, which will be broadcast live by Tianjin TV.