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FEATURE/Insurance issue complicating Taiwan's national basketball hopes

02/23/2024 08:33 PM
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Liu Cheng (with mic), captain of Taiwan's national basketball team at the 2025 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, speaks at a press conference for the tourney on Monday in Taipei. Photo courtesy of Chinese Taipei Basketball Association
Liu Cheng (with mic), captain of Taiwan's national basketball team at the 2025 FIBA Asia Cup qualifiers, speaks at a press conference for the tourney on Monday in Taipei. Photo courtesy of Chinese Taipei Basketball Association

By Chen Jung-chen and Chao Yen-hsiang, CNA staff reporter and writer

When a press conference was held in Taipei Monday ahead of Taiwan's first qualifier for the 2025 FIBA Asia Cup, most of the questions were not about the team, the players, or the challenges ahead.

Instead, one of the main topics was insurance, putting Chinese Taipei Basketball Association officials Chang Cheng-chung (張承中) and Chia Fan (賈凡) far more in the spotlight than national team captain Liu Cheng (劉錚), who was also there.

The issue emerged in early February when power forward Hu Long-mao (胡瓏貿), an all-star in the professional T1 LEAGUE in 2022-23, declined to play in this month's qualifiers due to what he said was the lack of coverage against injury.

A further uproar occurred on Feb. 15, when Liu vented his frustration on Facebook after only six or seven players took part in a national team practice a week before the team's game against New Zealand in Taipei on Feb. 22, which it lost 89-69.

The 33-year-old Liu did not blame the limited number of players at the practice on the insurance question, but he used it to highlight what he saw as a long-term lack of support from the association and the absence of progress on many player issues, especially regarding insurance.

"No one will want to play for the [national] team in the future," Liu wrote.

Though local basketball fans have directed most of their vitriol for the association, the situation is actually more complex than it appears, independent sports commentator Chen Kai (陳楷) told CNA.

'We have insurance'

Chang Cheng-chung (張承中, center), deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association, talks to the press in Taipei on Oct. 18, 2023. CNA file photo
Chang Cheng-chung (張承中, center), deputy secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association, talks to the press in Taipei on Oct. 18, 2023. CNA file photo

Chang said players on the national team were, in fact, covered by insurance for injuries from Feb. 4 to 26, when practices and the games are being held.

A player who as the result of injury during that is disabled and unable to work for the rest of their lives would receive NT$3 million (US$95,409), those who are partially disabled would get up to NT$50,000 per month for no more than 12 months, Chang said.

New salary landscape

Those benefits, however, fall well short of the earning power of pro players in Taiwan, though they might have satisfied the players in the past, Chen said.

"The strongest feeling I had when I read Liu's post was that the players of the younger generation are different," he said.

When Liu played in Taiwan's semi-professional Super Basketball League (SBL), players liked representing their country internationally because that was their meal ticket to higher incomes, Chen said.

According to the latest SBL draft rules, a first-round pick is guaranteed a salary of at least NT$60,000 per month, but a player who represents Taiwan internationally is guaranteed an annual income of NT$1.2 million.

The establishment of the professional P.LEAGUE+ and T1 LEAGUE in 2020 and 2021, respectively, however, has led to a surge in player salaries, and many veterans, including three-time PLG champion Jet Chang (張宗憲) who also played in the SBL, see young players as being very fortunate.

"The rookies today get paid as much as a top player's max deal in our time back then (in SBL)," Jet Chang said on his podcast without specifying an exact number.

Jet Chang lifts the 2020-21 P.LEAGUE+ regular season MVP trophy at Taipei Heping Basketball Gymnasium on May 7, 2021.
Jet Chang lifts the 2020-21 P.LEAGUE+ regular season MVP trophy at Taipei Heping Basketball Gymnasium on May 7, 2021.

That change, Chen said, has shifted players' mindsets, because it leaves them more vulnerable to losing income from the clubs due to injury when representing Taiwan in international competitions.

It also deters local insurance companies from providing coverage because it means higher payouts for injuries.

In addition, most players in today's pro basketball leagues have been plagued by wear and tear just to make it to the top, making the risk of injury and chances of having to pay out benefits higher.

"They try to balance between covering players' risk and supporting the sport, but insurance is also business, no commercial company has an obligation to do that.," Chen said.

It is therefore not surprising that, according to Chang Cheng-chung, only one insurer in Taiwan was even willing to offer coverage for the men's national basketball team.

Taiwan's court vs. field

Yet baseball has overcome these issues in Taiwan while basketball has not. Why?

Quite possibly because basketball's governing body in Taiwan, the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association, also runs the national team but is not involved in the professional leagues that supply most of the national team's players.

In baseball, however, Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) took over the responsibility for national team participation in international events from the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association in 2017.

With the CPBL in charge, recruiting players to represent Taiwan internationally has been much easier because players feel less concerned about injuries during such tournaments.

Team Taiwan celebrates a scored run during a WBC game with Team Italy in Taichung on March 10, 2023. CNA file photo
Team Taiwan celebrates a scored run during a WBC game with Team Italy in Taichung on March 10, 2023. CNA file photo

At a public event in Taipei on Feb. 1, four-time CPBL all-star outfielder Chen Chieh-hsien (陳傑憲) voiced his support for the necessity of players' insurance by referring to the experience of playing in the World Baseball Classic.

"You have to let the players feel you have their backs so they can spare no effort to fight for the country's glory," Chen Chieh-hsien said.

Although Chang Cheng-chung and Cheng Shih-chung (鄭世忠), director-general of the Sports Administration, have pledged to follow baseball's procedures in the future, the contrast between the two sports left Chen Kai unsure of whether the basketball association could make this work, arguing that the coexistence of two pro leagues in Taiwan has further complicated the situation.

"I cannot see this happening if the two leagues [PLG and T1 LEAGUE] do not merge," Chen said.

Ultimately, Taiwan was able to field a full team for the Feb. 22 game against New Zealand. But Hu was not on the roster because of the insurance issue, and Jet Chang felt it had an impact on the roster's composition.

The 13-man roster consisted primarily of young players whose will to play for the team was based on "sheer passion" and "sense of honor," he said on Instagram.

Liu Cheng (with ball) attempts a reverse layup in Thursday's game in Taipei with Team New Zealand. CNA photo Feb. 22, 2024
Liu Cheng (with ball) attempts a reverse layup in Thursday's game in Taipei with Team New Zealand. CNA photo Feb. 22, 2024

Jet Chang drew a contrast between pitcher Lo Chia-jen (羅嘉仁) receiving NT$5.14 million in a payout from an insurance company for a shoulder injury in the 2015 WBSC Premier 12 and him getting nothing more than medical expenses for a broken finger sustained during a national team practice in 2014.

If things do not change, he said, young players will one day be as reluctant to play for the national team as he is.

"Whenever I see those young players enthusiastic about playing for the team, I thought I felt the same way ... But you will realize how I felt after a few years," Jet Chang wrote, saying he could not remember how many times he tweaked his ankles for the team.

Given the youth of Taiwan's team, the loss to New Zealand was not unexpected. How well it copes in international play in the future, however, could very well be decided by issues like insurance that determine how willing players are to be recruited to play for their country.

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