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?
Consider, then, the excitement that new cross-strait and regional rivalries would generate. How would nationalist tensions among Asian nations play out on the field? Imagine if the Hanshin Tigers came to play the Uni-President Lions in Taiwan in a game that meant something and had playoff implications. The stands would fill and a new taste for competition and rivalry would emerge.
Marketing possibilities and TV revenue would grow exponentially across Asia if the leagues were consolidated and adequately promoted. People would actually want to pay to see games where something was at stake.
As US interest grows in the game overseas, Asia league games could be broadcast late at night on ESPN in the US instead of reruns. The World Baseball Classic was wildly popular in the US, and there is no reason to think that an Asian pro league would not be just as successful, given the level of talent that Asia boasts.
Whether or not an Asian league would be sponsored by MLB or function independently remains to be seen. In practical terms, consolidation would not be difficult to accomplish if the will were there.
Taiwan’s CPBL and Korea’s KBO have four and eight teams respectively. Japan’s NPB has 14 clubs. China’s CBL has six.
It would be easy to divide teams into two leagues, just like MLB. The Japanese league, for example, could be like the National League in the US. The teams in this league would continue to play each other as they do now. Then, the KBO, the CPBL and the CBL could merge into a single league like the American League. The KBO could consist of one division and the CPBL and CBL teams the other.
As with MLB fixtures, inter-league play could be limited to a handful of games for marketing purposes, thus minimizing travel costs, while the majority of games would be played within divisions that align geographically and preserve current rivalries.
Playoffs would then involve the winners of each league in a pan-Asian series. This would replace meaningless exhibition matches such as the Konami Cup.
There is no question that any plan for an Asian league would encounter many obstacles, and many baseball insiders scoff at the very idea of it. Convincing team owners, who have highly divergent interests, to work together would be a challenge.
Air travel between China, South Korea and Taiwan would be costly. In addition, corporate sponsors of Asian clubs often treat them as advertisements and would be unlikely to buy into such a plan unless it were demonstrated to them that it would be financially worthwhile.
Then there are the archaic owners and entrenched old boys’ networks in the NPB — particularly the Tokyo Giants junta — that would be reluctant to accept change.
At the outset of a unified competition, the top teams in the NPB — and possibly the KBO — would be much stronger than the others, so a more level playing field would have to be created, while limitations on player movement would have to be eased to ensure freer and more equitable distribution of talent.
The biggest obstacle would be national rivalries, language barriers and prejudice. Many people I have interviewed have suggested that a league would not work simply because employees from different countries simply could not cooperate, though this is highly debatable. And, of course, Taiwan would have to address its gambling problem.
Despite these challenges, the benefits that would flow from the formation of a pan-Asian league far outweigh the energy required to overcome obstacles. The idea is still in its early stages, but is already being discussed in baseball circles in Taiwan and Japan among a younger vanguard of officials who recognize the need for improved play in Asia — and who can see past today’s stale situation.
Baseball fans in Asia — who deserve the exciting, competitive atmosphere of professional baseball — would finally profit from a mechanism that would generate a higher level of competition. There would then be a real reason to head out to the ballpark instead of cheering for top hometown players in MLB games.
Most of all, the game would grow and fans in Asia — some of the most knowledgeable and passionate in the world — would see the game go to the next level. The time for change is now.
Jackson Broder is a scout for a Major League Baseball franchise and co-editor of the East Windup Chronicle, a baseball and culture blog.
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