MLB has spent over $100 million in an effort to establish a baseball market in China, but the early results have been slim, as the Chinese have been slow to show interest in the sport, and player development has been hampered by a lack of facilities.
Over the last decade China has been the Holy Grail for American sports leagues, with the NBA getting a significant advantage after Yao Ming’s successful time with the Houston Rockets — a tenure covered extensively in the Chinese press. MLB has not had a similar experience yet, despite a significant investment and a similar commitment from property developer Wang Jianwen. From Caixin Online:
But in China, professional baseball has stumbled in the past decades. The Chinese Baseball Association launched the China Baseball League, the country’s only official baseball league, in 2002 and invited foreign investors such as Japan’s Softbank Group to organize the games. However, baseball never developed an enthusiastic following and in 2012, the league, with only seven teams, was suspended due to a lack of capital and sponsorships.
According to the Chinese Baseball Association in a 2015 document, China at that time had around 1,000 registered professional baseball players and 50 baseball diamonds across the country, compared to over 10,000 soccer pitches.
That’s not stopping MLB China and Jianwen from making another run at the market:
Building that career path for young baseball players is what MLB China has been trying to do during its nine-year operation in China. MLB China has set up baseball development centers in Wuxi, Changzhou and Nanjing, offering professional training to young players and building bridges between Chinese players and U.S. baseball teams.
In 2015, 19-year-old left-handed first-baseman Xu Guiyuan, signed with Baltimore Orioles, becoming the first Chinese player to sign with an MLB team. Xu’s training was sponsored by MLB China’s development center in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province.
Baseball is already a popular sport in Japan and South Korea. And while the potential payoff with a successful entry in the huge Chinese market could be tremendou, it certainly will take many more years of work — and maybe a little luck — to achieve that goal.