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Local baseball bemoans declining fans in stands

Academics say rampant illegal betting, poor marketing strategy to blame

Hundreds of fans cheer for Wang Chien-ming in front of a huge screen at the Core Pacific Living Mall in Taipei
, October 4, 2006.
Taiwanese swing the national flags during the game Cuba and Taiwan for Intercontinental Cup Baseball Championships 16 November 2006. Taiwan beats Cuba...

Hundreds of fans cheer for Wang Chien-ming in front of a huge screen at the Core Pacific Living Mall in Taipei , October 4, 2006.

Taiwanese swing the national flags during the game Cuba and Taiwan for Intercontinental Cup Baseball Championships 16 November 2006. Taiwan beats Cuba...

Students sloughed school, employees skipped work, even parents pulled their kids out of class just to watch him play.
The "pride of Taiwan," Wang Chien-ming (王建民), single-handedly spread baseball fever around the country with his stellar performance in 2006 as a starter for the New York Yankees in American Major League Baseball. He set the record for most regular season wins by an Asian pitcher in the U.S. with 19.
But with Wang's ascent, attendance at local Chinese Professional Baseball League games fell, prompting many to wonder if the stardom attained by Wang and other Taiwanese players overseas will rescue or undermine Taiwan's struggling professional ranks.
"There is no question that Wang Chien-ming is the most loved baseball player in the country. Ever since he became famous, we have seen a dip in our fans. But I think it is just a phase and sooner or later, the fans will return," said Huang Ying-Po, the chief supervisor of the Brother Elephants, one of the six teams in the CPBL.
Boost from the Yankees
Huang, who has dedicated his life to creating a strong professional environment for the nation's pastime, said he sincerely believes the CPBL will pull itself out of its current rut and expects the Yankees' ace to be one of the catalysts behind the revival.
"It's true that more fans would rather watch Wang Chien-ming on TV than come to the stadium to see CPBL games, but we are banking that some of their love for him will spill over to the league," he suggested.
The CPBL was established 17 years ago by hotelier Hung Tung-sheng, an avid baseball lover and enthusiastic supporter of the game. But the league has hit both peaks and valleys during the past two decades, and almost collapsed in the mid- to late '90s when it was devastated by a gambling scandal that undercut the game's integrity.
In 1996, 39 players were indicted for throwing games, and 34 were found guilty the same year, driving fans away in droves. Having peaked at 6,878 per game in 1992, average attendance was still an acceptable 4,548 in 1996.
But it dropped precipitously to 2,041 in 1997 and in truth has never recovered.
Rocked by the gambling scandal and bleeding money as attendance fell, the China Times Eagles disbanded after the 1998 season and two of the league's four original teams - the Weichuan Dragons and Sanshang Tigers - disbanded a year later.
Even with the recent Wang Chien-ming phenomenon, attendance in 2006 averaged only 2,263, sharply down from 3,505 in 2004 and 3,294 when the league seemed to be regaining traction with local fans.
National College of Physical Education and Sports professor Tsai Kung-ting from the Department of Recreation and Leisure Industry Management attributed the league's long-term decline to two factors: rampant illegal betting and the CPBL's poor marketing strategies.
"It's not fair to blame the decline on the 'Wang Chien-ming Phenomenon' because the CPBL would still be in a dire state without him," Tsai asserted.
Fans have long associated the league with illegal gambling rings and players fixing games to earn extra cash, he said. Unless the players can start fulfilling what he calls the "social responsibility" that comes with being a public figure, fans will continue to devote their attention to major league baseball in the United States.
Image problem
The league faces a stiff challenge in shedding its tainted image. Game-fixing allegations that implicated players on the La New Bears and Sinon Bulls hurt the league again midway through the 2005 season.
Just recently, the pitching coach of the 2006 Taiwan Series Champion La New Bears was the target of a criminal investigation when a gang leader confessed bribing the coach with cash in exchange for fixing the final playoff game, although the coach denied influencing the game's outcome. A number of Bears were interrogated in the probe.
Tsai also accused the league's corporate sponsors of negligence in managing their teams.
"The sponsors are cutting costs by spending the bare minimum to market the teams. But the problem is that in doing so, they may save money for the time being but suffer a greater economic loss in the long run," he pointed out.
Unlike its U.S. counterpart, the CPBL does not have a collective marketing strategy to promote the entire league. Instead, the individual teams are left to fend for themselves.
This lack of synergy, in Tsai's opinion, is a major reason for the league's decline.
Huang suggested that one strategy to boost attendance and attract fans, especially young children, would be to allow the fans to have more personal contact with the players.
"We understand that most people would rather watch the games from the comfort of their own homes, but that is exactly why we must offer things that are only available at the stadium, such as photo ops with the players after the game or door prizes."
In addition to better marketing strategies, Taipei Physical Education College assistant professor Shao Yu-ling said the corporate sponsors should also adjust player salaries upwards to make the league more competitive with overseas teams.
"The players must feel a sense of pride in their work. Once they feel valued and appreciated, it will be easy for them to deliver good performances because they are already skilled players," Shao said.
"By doing so, they will be more attracted to the option of staying in Taiwan instead of going overseas," she argued.
Throughout the years, Taiwan has lost top-notch players to foreign teams. Wang may be the best-known example, while in this offseason, the Macoto Cobras lost ace Lin En-yu to Japan's Rakuten Eagles while the Bears' star left-hander Wu Si-you signed with Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines.
Despite what seems like an apparent flood of talent rushing abroad, Huang sees the trend going the other way, with many players opting to stay in Taiwan.
"La New's Chen Chin-feng (陳金鋒) is a good example of players returning to the CPBL," Huang said, referring to the former Los Angeles Dodger. "His refusal to sign with a Japanese team is an indication that the CPBL is improving and the athletes are having their confidence in the league restored," he said.
Huang's opinion is not widely shared.
Catch 22
In a public letter released around the time that Wu Si-you signed with a Japanese club, La New Chairman Liu Bao-you lamented losing some of his best players to foreign teams and his dilemma as a team sponsor.
"If the team performs badly, I worry Taiwanese fans will feel disappointed at the team, but if the team plays well, then I worry the players will get lured away by foreign scouts," Liu wrote.
Likening himself to a hen and the foreign scouts to vultures, he said he never knows which one of his "chicks" will be the next one to be snatched away.
"It's like watching your daughter get married," Liu said, describing his bittersweet feeling after Wu opted to play in Japan.
Liu said that whenever he loses a player, he feels a sense of pride because that means he has trained his players well enough to be noticed by foreign teams. But he also feels sad because it means Taiwan will have one less good performer.
"The silver lining in losing a player to a good team like the Lotte Marines is it motivates other players to do better. Also, it will also inspire young kids to play professional baseball," he said.
The loss of one player, he said optimistically, could motivate ten other players. Parents might also be more inclined to let their sons play baseball if they are talented because there exist clear avenues for career development in the sport.
Liu also said the government should shoulder some of the blame for the league's dilapidated state.
"All the illegal gambling issues are a reflection of government negligence, not poor management by the sponsors. What corporate sponsor would shoot itself in the foot by tolerating illegal activities by its team?" he asked.
He also suggested that Taiwanese baseball players should be allowed to become free agents after they put in a certain number of years with the team. That way players know that if they excel, they will one day have a chance to test the local market as free agents and expand their earning power, rather than being forced to think about an overseas move if they want to get paid well.
Chen Bao-ting, a 25 year-old special education teacher and CPBL fan, said she has seen gradual improvements in the league despite of all the gambling issues.
"I am not concerned with players fixing the games because I really believe most of the players are honest and would not dare to jeopardize their careers in that way," she said.
Her friend, Jossette Chen, shares her sentiment and said it is up to the coach to keep a tighter rein over his players.
"It is very disheartening to see the entire league being tainted by a small handful of players. It is not fair to those who are playing the game honestly," she said.
Getting back on track
Despite the league's declining attendance, some people think baseball is quickly picking up its popularity again on the island.
Huang Chun-ming, a 31 year-old computer engineer, said he stopped watching Taiwanese baseball all together a few years ago because the games were so "boring."
"But the recent wins in the Asian Series and the Asian Games have enticed me to watch baseball again. Right now, Taiwanese baseball has become a common topic of conversation in my office. When the Chinese Taipei team won the Asian Games, my friends and I talked about it for days," he said.
More convincing performances by the national team overseas will give the league some of the credibility it needs to convince fans it is worth their while to attend games.
But until the corporate sponsors collectively market the league, and the stench of illegal gambling and game-fixing is washed away, fans may still find a morning in front of a television watching Wang Chien-ming throwing his lethal sinker far more appealing than a night out at a local professional ballgame.

Updated : 2021-06-14 04:28 GMT+08:00