The last couple of months of baseball in Asia provided followers with a glimpse of the problems confronting the professional game in the Pacific Rim, as well as the possibilities and benefits that would arise from the creation of a pan-Asian major league consisting of pro teams from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China.
Last month’s Konami Cup — a competitive but ultimately meaningless annual exhibition series featuring champion teams from Japan’s NPB, Korea’s KBO, China’s CBL and Taiwan’s CPBL — showcased Asia’s best pro clubs and highlighted the movement toward international play. But the tourney was played to mostly empty seats, save for a handful of scouts, friends and families of players and a few die-hard fans in the Tokyodome.
Here in Taiwan, this year’s gambling and match-fixing scandal has caused two of the CPBL’s teams to fold, leaving the league on the verge of collapse with just four teams remaining. Meanwhile, Taiwanese fans who will stay awake until 3am or travel halfway across the world just to watch Wang Chien-ming (王建民) pitch a single game can’t be bothered to travel a few hundred meters (or even change the channel) to watch CPBL games.
In Japan, a select few pro teams remain profitable, but most are struggling to stay afloat as fans and baseball brass lament declining interest and an increasing defection of top talent to Major League Baseball (MLB).
At the same time, MLB teams are continuing to comb Asia’s professional leagues and amateur ranks for talent, in some cases signing “agreements” with Asian pro teams that treat them more or less as vassal appendages to the big league clubs. Recently there has been talk of adding an MLB franchise or even an entire division in Asia. But this doesn’t solve the problem for fans of local professional teams and leagues in Asia who want to see quality, homegrown pro baseball.
The question is, with some of the world’s top baseball talent and a huge base of avid, knowledgeable fans, why haven’t Asian professional leagues been able to harness this hunger for baseball into quality professional leagues?
If Asian fans, players and owners want to experience a competitive, exciting and marketable level of pro baseball that can compete with MLB and celebrate Asia’s vast pool of talent, then the answer is to combine the existing teams from the major pro leagues in Asia in a single league.
This would create a legitimate pro league with enough teams to generate genuinely compelling competition. It would significantly enhance the overall quality of baseball in Asia, over time providing a viable alternative to MLB for Asian players and fans, and give fans something real to cheer for at the pro level. It would also help stem the tide of player defections.
In the past year, KBO, CPBL and NPB officials have turned to draconian rules to warn young players away from seeking careers in the US. But these officials miss the point: Instead of punishing players for seeking careers in a more competitive and lucrative league, they need to create a viable alternative in Asia that gives them real incentive to stay at home.
What parents would want their prodigy to join a four-team league that can fold at any minute when he could try his hand at MLB? What fans would sit in a near-empty stadium watching the same small number of clubs compete year after year?