Professional baseball in Taiwanby Kevin Lai
March 04, 2011
The island of Taiwan has a rich baseball culture; it was first exposed to the sport while under Japanese rule. While its professional baseball league isn't as well recognized as other international leagues, Taiwan has exported numerous talents to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and the majors. Taiwan was also considered a Little League powerhouse in the 1970s, winning seven Little League World Series titles in that decade alone (out of 17 total titles).
Since my recent trip to Taiwan, I have found interest in Taiwan's baseball culture, and more specifically, the professional leagues. So here is a summary of a couple of points I wanted to share with other fans of baseball. What's most interesting to me is its similarities to the early years of professional baseball in America.
Similar to America, Taiwan has seen the rise and fall of a couple professional leagues. The Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) was founded in the late 1980s, creating the four original teams known as the Brother Elephants, Uni-President Lions, Wei Chuan Dragons and Mercuries Tigers. Like the NPB organization in Japan, each team is owned by and named for a local corporation.
The league expanded and retracted multiple times, as other corporations chose to add a baseball team, or sell part of its conglomerate reach to another firm. The CPBL has players' rights similar to those of the early National League. There's no such thing as free agency, and the teams have full control over a player's career. Any instance of dismay and a player can be cut.
The Taiwan Major League (TML) was formed in 1996, due to a television conglomerate upset over losing the broadcasting rights to the CPBL games. Unlike the CPBL's objective choice of mascots, TML team mascots represented the Taiwanese aboriginal gods. The TML had a huge fan base not only because it paid homage to the Taiwanese heritage, but also because of its higher compensation that enticed numerous CPBL players, some even breaking their contracts with their original teams (sound familiar?). The TML lured players away, but the CPBL was still considered to be the league with better talent. In the end (so far in the story), the TML merged with the CPBL in 2003 due to heavy losses. Nowadays, the CPBL only consists of four teams that tour across the island.
Another interesting point about these Taiwanese professional leagues is the use of home territories. While MLB uses territorial rights (like the Giants blocking any sort of move of the A's to San Jose), these Taiwanese teams could visit other cities within their "home region" throughout the season. A resulting benefit is the ability to reach more fans who would otherwise have to drive long distances to see their favorite team. I wonder if a similar system would work in major league baseball, but then again, many small market regions have minor league clubs. Thus it seems this home region system is ideal for the small island market capacity.
Playoffs and the fall of the Asia Series
There is only so much creativeness that can go into deciding a champion out of four teams, right? Out of the four teams, three will qualify for the playoffs. To make things a tad more interesting, the first two spots are given to the winners of each half-season, while the third is a wild card (but can we really call it a wild card spot when you need to finish above only one team?).
The Taiwan Series (best of seven games) would feature the first-round winner and first-seed team. There have been stretches of seasons where a team would win three titles in a row: the Brother Elephants (1992-1994, 2001-2003), the Uni-President Lions (2007-2009) and the Wei Chuan Dragons (1997-1999). The tie for most titles at seven is between the Lions and Elephants.
To create more buzz, the four main professional leagues of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China agreed to an Asia Series starting in 2005 that would match the champions of each league against one another. However, the continental playoff series lasted only four seasons due to financial troubles. While it makes sense to create a unifying Asia playoff series, financial burdens and the decreasing international spotlight on baseball (e.g., cutting baseball out of the Olympics) have caused this series to be shut down. However, there is news the series will return this November, hosted by the CPBL. This is good news for Asia baseball, and may help rejuvenate the international presence of the sport.
The popularity of the CPBL can be best described as quite volatile, showing two main peaks in the time plot above. It seems the league created a good following in the 1990s, but fell off steeply halfway through the decade. While there are surely plenty of reasons for these patterns in attendance, three come to mind.
As I have mentioned before, the creation of the TML in 1996 was quite popular among citizens. One of the main reasons for its early success was the TML's strong themes of Taiwanese heritage and its localized efforts to create loyalty within fans. TML essentially used the major league model of "this is my home town, my home team" persona to draw the attention of fans.
Another possible variable affecting the second sharp decline around 1999-2000 is the 7.3-measure earthquake that struck the island. I don't think many people had the stomach to go to baseball games after this natural disaster killed more than 2,000 people and cost nearly $10 billion in damages. Although that is all speculation, there's this final reason that I'm certain is the main cause of the decrease in popularity, as well as a cause for concern in the future. The other two reasons may just be side variables that only shadowed the most damaging effect on baseball.
Just like America's familiarity with the Black Sox or Pete Rose's gambling problems, Taiwan baseball has been embarrassed and humiliated in many of the same ways. The main scandal that predated the sharp decline in attendance in 1997 is known as the Black Eagles Incident. It was discovered that numerous players on the then China Times Eagles team had conspired to fix games. In the end, only two Eagles players remained clean from suspicion. During this time, other instances of players and even coaches being threatened to help local gang members or other gambling groups leaked out. Another flash of fixed games scandals occurred in 2005 and 2008; same issues, different year.
It's clear these scandals of fixed games have had a detrimental effect on baseball in the Asian hemisphere. Just like cheating and steroid use that has hogged the headlines in recent years, incidents of fixed games represent dishonesty from players when the truth comes out. There's no reason to be surprised by these steep drops in popularity.
What does the future of baseball in Taiwan look like? There are reasons to be optimistic, with the news of the Asia Series coming to Taiwan in November 2011. And while there are many similarities to the ups and downs of professional baseball in America, there's still a long way to go. While the CPBL has used strict punishment against offenders (time and time again, banned those in the mix of fixed games for life), it still hasn't seemed to get the message across to players. The league needs to keep better tabs on its players. This starts with a separate entity of officials (currently, a committee of regulators serve as the general managers of each team) who can then delegate a team or group to handle any suspicious activities. Just as in any other organization, the foundation must be rock solid for it to keep fruition.
It is obvious too that MLB cares for the longevity of leagues in Taiwan. The island is continuing to produce high level talents, as seen in the recent rise of Hong-Chih Kuo and Chien-Ming Wang (although Wang hasn't been a useful part of a team since his leg injury with the Yankees). And last spring, the Dodgers went to the island in hopes of giving a boost to baseball fever. Maybe more teams and more international press will visit Taiwan with interest in tapping into the market. Because it is there.
References and Resources
I read several articles when researching the history of baseball in Taiwan (and, I admit, Wikipedia and Baseball-Reference's BR Bullpen). One book that goes way in depth in not only Taiwanese baseball, but other international leagues is Baseball without borders: the international pastime. A link to the Google book (excerpts) can be found here.