Sun, Jan 09, 2000 - Page 24 News List

Hoop dreams

Even as Taiwan struggles to restart its defunct professional basketball league, many are pushing to create a Pan-Asian league

By William Ide  /  STAFF REPORTER

Out on the court, Taiwan's very own "Dr J," Hongkuo Elephant guard Cheng Chih-lung, is doing his stuff as a new addition to the Shanghai Sharks while the Taiwan league is dormant.

Behind him, the crowd in Shanghai is roaring, some on their feet as he weaves his way through a key-full of Shandong Bulls to put a lay-up off the board.

The shot drops in just as smoothly as he slithered through the lane. But as he does so one of the Bulls cranks down hard on his shirt.

Immediately he hits the ground, scowling at the referee who stands nearby.

"Did you see that?" He flings his arms wide and tugs at his shirt. The referee ignores him and the game rolls on.

"It's old fogey ball out there," Cheng quips after the game. "It's like Taiwan about ten years ago."

Perhaps. But while basketball may be rougher in China, at least they're still playing. Taiwan's Chinese Basketball Alliance halted play indefinitely last March, with reported losses of up to US$39 million over a five-year period.

Uncertain future

Just this week, the Alliance announced it will be back on its feet by March, but the league's future actually remains uncertain. Cheng and others believe the only thing that can guarantee its future is the creation of an Asia-wide league, similar to the NBA, that draws the other regional leagues together.

Says Cheng: "No matter whether it's South Korea, Philippines, Japan, the [individual] market is too small. In the end it is difficult to raise a league. In the end it is better to work through the market of Asia."

Taiwan boasts some two million court hounds. But by the end of last season, the league rarely drew more than 2,000 spectators per game.

Some critics say the league tumbled over the last five years because it became a showcase for corporate sponsorship. Others say a more serious problem was that the league lacked a professional management organization, being managed instead in rotation by the owners of the teams competing in the league. The result: infighting and score-settling.

"Whenever we run into problems no one works through them," Cheng says. "They just fight over little things."

But whatever the reasons for the decline, the chief challenge for anyone seeking to revive Taiwan's league is getting punters back into the stalls. And increasing numbers of industry insiders are beginning to argue that the way to achieve this is by reaching out to Asia.

"Basketball as a spectator sport in other countries like Japan and Korea has a better foundation, because there is a home-visitor phenomenon," says William Wu, former head of marketing for Nike Taiwan.

Wu concedes that attendance remains fairly low for local matches even in Korea and Japan, and says international matches typically attract larger crowds.

"I don't think the local league can go anywhere unless it is a pre-Asian league," he says.

Getting an Asian league off the ground is no simple task, though.

Carl Ching, President of the Asian Basketball Confederation, has been working toward that end for 10 years now. He launched the first Asian Basketball Super League last year, but its start, after more than four years of trial games, was bumpy. But this year he will be joined in his efforts by Daniel Chiang, a hi-tech business leader, who is stepping in to help revamp the league.

Shifting gears

Better known as the man who founded Trend Micro and Sina.Com, both billion-dollar companies, Chiang is now shifting his sights from the World Wide Web and computer viruses to the basketball court.

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