MLB broadens appeal of baseball in China

Updated: 2015-04-18 16:22


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BEIJING - Unlike aggressive marketing by National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Baseball (MLB) has taken a gradual approach to bring America's pastime to China.

"We are trying to broaden the appeal of the game, increase participation and raise the standard through a long-term strategic plan," said Jim Small, MLB vice president for Asia, after an opening ceremony for the new season of the Beijing college league on Saturday.

Since opening its China office in Beijing in 2007, MLB has launched grassroots youth baseball program Play Ball! in major Chinese cities, helped Chinese elementary schools incorporate baseball into the physical education curriculum, built professional development centers and sponsored Beijing's college league.

More recently, MLB launched a baseball reality show in China and invited pop singer Jane Zhang Liangying as an image ambassador.

MLB has three development centers in southeast China's Jiangsu province, aimed at finding and nurturing future talent.

"We are doing things consistently, and from grassroots," said Small.

Small recognized MLB China's progress in broadening appeal of the game, saying "a team of brilliant people made smart investments" including the one in Beijing college baseball.

"Look at these young people," said Small, pointing to the college league opening game between Tsinghua and Beida, the most prestigious universities in China. "They will graduate, and they are going to good jobs - government, business and other enterprises.

"We are seeing these kids falling in love with baseball and they will go on to top positions in Chinese society. They are going to be people who will influence baseball in the years ahead."

Small acknowledged NBA's big inroads into China, saying he looked up to NBA and had learnt something from it.

"One of the things I've learnt from NBA is that you can't have Yao Ming without laying all the groundwork, grassroots programs or sponsors," he said.

Basketball has boomed in China, helped by Yao Ming who played for Houston Rockets. State television began showing NBA games in the late 1980s, and in 2004 the Rockets and Sacramento Kings played the league's first games in China.

Teams and sponsors have also found a lucrative market here for merchandise, and NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant receive rapturous receptions from fans during regular offseason visits.

"If Yao Ming came along around 1980, NBA probably weren't prepared to take advantage of that because they hadn't been here long enough," said Small.

"With heavy investments in China, I am hoping one of those kids in development centers in Jiangsu will be a baseball version of Yao Ming in next four or five years."