Tobin: Why is baseball a hit in Japan but striking out in China?

From Meagan Tobin at the South China Morning Post on September 9, 2018:

Catchers are among the most essential and most overlooked players on the baseball field. Power hitters and diving outfielders get the most camera time, and the psychological duel between pitchers and batters monopolises the game. But the catcher is the backbone, setting the pace, anchoring and orchestrating the team – and this is the role Justin could someday play.

A powerful left-handed hitter, he is 17 years old, six feet tall and 186 pounds, ideally suited to baseball. Last fall, after some scouts saw him behind the plate, Justin achieved the nearly impossible – he was signed by the Boston Red Sox as a player in their Gulf Coast League, US$10,000 bonus in hand, becoming the first player from Tibet ever signed by Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States.

Justin is one of five players from mainland China currently signed to the Minor League, where promising young players are developed to rise through the ranks and someday, perhaps, play for a top-tier team. They are all products of MLB’s development-centre model, which gives athletes as young as 10 the opportunity to build their baseball skills through daily training while also attending school. MLB has operated three centres in Nanjing, Changzhou, and Wuxi since 2009, and in December announced plans to expand the model in twenty more locations across China.

The programme is part of MLB’s broader ambitions to grow baseball into a sport as popular as basketball in China. In 2015, the US National Basketball Association (NBA) signed a US$500 million partnership with Chinese internet giant Tencent Holdings, giving Tencent broadcasting rights for NBA content.

During last year’s NBA playoffs, the league’s Weibo account counted 2.9 billion video views – a level of success MLB hopes to emulate.

Baseball’s slow growth in mainland China stands in stark contrast to its popularity in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, where decades of economic and cultural proximity to the US have made the game a beloved national pastime.

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Originally published: September 10, 2018. Last Updated: September 10, 2018.