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Taiwan mulls possibility of Australian, Japanese teams joining CPBL

2017/11/23 17:42:08

Photo courtesy of Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL)

By Joseph Yeh, staff reporter

For years Taiwan's professional baseball league has been talking about the possible expansion of its franchise, because with only four teams since 2009 the 28-year league is not as popular as it once was.

The Taipei-based Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL, 中華職棒) had seven teams in 1997. However, following a series of match-fixing scandals in the mid-1990s, a number of teams disbanded.

Those scandals not only marred the image of the league, they also led to plummeting attendance rates. In the 1990s, CPBL games averaged crowds of well over 5,000, but attendance more than halved in the wake of the first match-fixing accusations to below 2,000 and stayed below 4,000 for nearly a decade.

With CPBL teams adopting more serious measures to combat match-fixing and introducing incentives to attract fans, the league's average attendance passed 3,000 for the first time in more than a decade in 2013. The arrival of former LA Dodgers player Manny Ramirez and performance of the national team in the 2013 World Baseball Classic helped boost average attendance to 6,079.

The crowds have remained above 5,000 for the past five years and in 2015 the Taoyuan-based Lamigo Monkeys became the first team to make a profit since the disbanding of the Brother Elephants, a positive outcome welcomed by other teams.

It is against this backdrop that the league is considering expanding, with more prospective buyers interested in joining the CPBL, recognizing the potential money-making opportunity offered by a country that considers baseball its No. 1 pastime.

Over the last few years several local enterprises have expressed an interest, but none have yet taken the plunge.

Over the past few weeks, two teams have finally made their interest in joining the CPBL official and they are not Taiwanese enterprises -- one is located in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan, the other in Australia.

During a meeting with CPBL Commissioner John Wu (吳志揚) in Taipei on Nov. 3, Australia Baseball League (ABL) chief executive Cam Vale indicated the league's interest in CPBL expansion, asking several questions about the rules for adding new teams.

It seems Vale's questions were more than customary politeness as a week later the CPBL and Taiwan's Sports Administration confirmed they had received an official inquiry from the Australians indicating they have a team interested in joining the CPBL.

Two weeks later on Nov. 19, during a meeting with Taiwan's top envoy to Japan Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) in Tokyo, Wu disclosed that the Okinawa Prefectural government has also expressed interest in forming a professional baseball team to compete in the CPBL.

It is certainly good news for both the CPBL and local baseball fans that foreign teams are considering joining the league.

Such a move would expand the international visibility of the Taiwanese league while at the same time making games more competitive in a league where a lot of fans are tired of seeing the same four teams competing against each other year in year out.

The ABL is one of baseball's recognized winter leagues, with its season running from November through February, though it is still summer in Australia.

Minor league prospects in North America are very often sent as an English-speaking alternative to the primary Spanish-speaking Latin America-based winter leagues.

Many Taiwanese professional players also join ABL teams as part of their winter training during the off season.

Meanwhile, Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture of Japan, is only an hour flight from Taiwan. It currently has six amateur baseball teams and is a base for Japanese and Korean pro teams which regularly head to its tropical islands for spring training.

This is not the first time the CPBL has attempted to reach outside Taiwan and explore overseas opportunities.

In 2011, then CPBL commissioner Chao Shou-po (趙守博) proposed holding some regular season games in China, but the proposal was quickly overtaken by political considerations.

It also has to be recognized that while the idea of an ABL or Japanese team joining the CPBL might seem interesting, practically speaking, several major hurdles will have to be overcome before it becomes a reality.

First and foremost, is the money there?

According to CPBL regulations, the entry fee for a new team is NT$120 million, but this comes with a jaw-dropping NT$360 million security deposit and an additional NT$100 million for the promotion of little leagues.

In other words, any new team has to pay NT$580 million (US$193 million) up front before it even begins recruiting players, coaching staff and managers.

In addition, the capital of a CPBL team's mother company cannot be more than 50 percent foreign owned, according to the rules.

However, such rules were drafted to apply to local businesses and the CPBL could be thinking of giving its rulebook an overhaul after the recent interest from foreign teams.

Commenting on the possible inclusion of two foreign teams, Wu told local media earlier this week that a CPBL board of directors and standing committee meeting next month will discuss whether to accept the proposals made by the Japanese and ABL.

During a phone interview with CNA on Thursday, CPBL secretary general Feng Sheng-xian (馮勝賢) said the league will come up with new rules and qualification standards for foreign teams that want to join the league only after that the board of directors approves the proposals at the December meeting.

"We need to draft new rules not just to meet the more urgent demands of the Japanese and Australians but also as part of a long-term plan that will work for any foreign team that wants to join the CPBL and that may take a while," he added.

Chen Chih-chung (陳執中), a baseball fan for 25 years, told CNA that he is happy to see foreign teams joining the league, but would prefer an ABL team rather than one from Okinawa.

"Okinawa doesn't have a professional team at all, which means their future team will not be at the same level as the Taiwanese league," he noted.

Echoing Chen's view, Lin Chieh-hung (林介宏), another long-term fan, told CNA that having a team from Okinawa will not benefit the CPBL because the team will not have the requisite skills or funding to compete.

He also suggested that before accepting an ABL team into the CPBL, the two leagues should hold more exhibition series to see if fans respond positively to the idea.

It may take several months or even years before discussions about an Okinawan or ABL team joining the local pro league bear fruit, but local baseball fans are already talking about the possibility, generating the sort of interest that would be welcomed by any professional sports league anywhere in the world.