Wed, Apr 08, 2009 - Page 19 News List

FEATURE : Illegal betting turns fans off Taiwan baseball

By Ralph Jennings  /  REUTERS , TAIPEI

Chung Yi-min would go to a baseball game almost every month and watch many more on television until four or five years ago, when the 36-year-old fan started getting fed up with the nation’s most popular sport.

“If they don’t catch balls I get suspicious because these are professional players,” said Chung, who works as an event planner and has watched baseball since childhood. “Everyone will think that the game result isn’t the actual result.”

Chung now prefers televised US Major League Baseball to local games because of illegal betting, which has cost the nation’s 20-year-old league a chunk of its fan base, taking income away from the sport’s development and lowering the national team’s odds of international championships.

Taiwan’s Criminal Investigation Bureau logged 102 illegal baseball betting cases involving 222 people last year and have tapped 20 cases covering 32 people so far this year.

Justice ministry spokesman Luo Chi-wang said that punters could keep their names secret from betting ring operators.

The Cabinet has said it will take a swing at betting this year, while celebrities and President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) have attended games to stimulate audience interest.

“Local prosecutors will keep looking into this matter,” Luo said. “Of course there’s a mafia connection but we haven’t deeply analyzed it. We’re not saying it still exists or whether it has changed.”

Taiwan’s four professional teams have lost 45 percent of their stadium attendance over the past five years, cutting attendance to about 573,000 per year, league statistics show.

Television viewership had sunk by more than half over the same period largely due to public suspicions about betting, a team president said.

Taiwan went out early from the World Baseball Classic last month and won only two of seven games at last year’s Beijing Olympics.

“If there’s no one watching, how can you develop a team?” said Richard Lin, secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association.

A decline in the number of baseball fans reduces box office income, drying up training funds and pressuring companies to consider dropping team sponsorships.

The specter of betting and threats against players also discourage students from taking up the sport in school.

“If no one watches, that will affect the images of companies that sponsor teams and they will question whether they want to continue the sponsorships,” said Jason Lin, president of the Uni-President Lions team. “And parents won’t send their children to play ball.”

A players’ association said last month that up to 100 members would sign more than 10 percent of their salaries to a local bank for their retirement. If a player was convicted of intentional poor play, the bank would donate the money to baseball development.

“False play has been such a problem in the past, so we need to increase self-discipline,” said Lions pitcher Pan Wei-lun, adding that he had never been approached by betting rings.

Most players were in fair territory but “a few” still played poorly due to mafia threats or the money received for cooperating with bettors, league commissioner Chao Shou-po said.

“Let’s not make the wrong friends or go to the wrong places,” Chao told players at a ceremony with the bank.

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