Putting a face to, and a glove on, the globalization of sports
On an overcast Sunday in June, 14 George Washington University students stood at the edge of a turf field in Wuxi (pronounced woo-shee). We were visiting a Major League Baseball Development Center in China, a residential baseball school a 2 1/2-hour drive from Shanghai. Rob Palmer, director of the Wuxi DC and a former Cal-Poly Pomona player, had been a welcoming host. He had spoken with us about the his job turning raw talent into baseball players. He’d given us freedom to explore the campus — a maze of turf fields, practice areas and dormitories. We observed batting drills and then had a memorable question-and-answer period with 17 teenage Chinese baseball players:
Who is the most famous baseball player in the world?
Have you heard of Mike Trout?
(Smiles, quizzical looks) No.
What is the most important lesson of baseball?
The value of teamwork.
As we were leaving, we invited our young Chinese hosts to play catch. They supplied the gloves and the balls. We took the photographs on our smartphones (quickly posted to Facebook and Twitter). For 10 minutes, GW students and the Chinese players stood 30 feet apart flipping balls. Language barrier? Not when you’re playing catch.
|GW students met Chinese baseball players at the MLB Development Center in Wuxi.
Students met with MLB’s media partner and learned about an MLB reality series in China, “Perfect Pitch.” We paid a call on the secretary general of the Chinese Baseball Association, who reported — to our surprise — that there are 46 baseball diamonds in the country. We met players on a college club baseball team at the University of International Business and Economics and met Tianyi “Terry” Cao, the club’s personable vice president, who told us earnestly, “I love the feeling of pitching.”
It wasn’t on the official itinerary, but GW students discovered a baseball-themed sports bar and restaurant. They reported back that baseball was making inroads in Shanghai, at least in one eating joint. The restaurant was packed. TVs were tuned to MLB games. The lines were long at the batting cages.
We met with Nike, NBA China and NFL China and learned how those brands leverage their assets in China. We even made time to be tourists and spent a morning walking the Great Wall.
The China phase of the course ended in Beijing when students presented recommendations to MLB based on their research and analysis. This month, they will submit consulting reports to Jim Small, MLB managing director and vice president for Asia, and Leon Xie, MLB managing director, China.
A major league player from China would be MLB’s biggest success. It’s also MLB’s greatest challenge. There are many hurdles. Although baseball has been played in China since the 19th century, it has a complicated history in the country. During the Cultural Revolution, it was considered Western and even subversive. To avoid punishment from the government, fans of baseball went underground, hiding bats and gloves.
Today, baseball isn’t widely played. MLB estimates there are approximately 13,500 players participating on baseball teams in a country with a population of 1.3 billion. Most adults are unfamiliar with the rules. Children are more likely to pick up basketball or to play soccer. China’s government maintains a strong focus on sport as an expression of nationalism. Its focus is international competition — the World Cup and the Olympics, for example. Until baseball is reinstated as an Olympic sport, it will face challenges in China.
MLB has made strides in introducing baseball to the Chinese public. MLB’s Play Ball! program has become a part of the sports program in 130 middle schools throughout China. MLB trains physical education teachers. It also provides baseball equipment and uniforms for young players who become players and fans.
The best athletes can graduate from Play Ball! to the development centers. MLB opened the first development center in Wuxi in 2007. Now, at three development centers, nearly 90 players are training with MLB instructors.
The Wuxi Development Center is located in a densely populated neighborhood with narrow streets and small apartments. Players are recruited at age 12 or 13. MLB offers scholarships to attend the private high school affiliated with the Wuxi Development Center. Players leave their families and move there to become students and baseball players. They attend school in the morning and play baseball in the afternoons.
Parents give up their children in the hope that the education they receive will help prepare them for a better life. Some dream of their child going off to the U.S. to play baseball in college. (So far, DC graduates have not played college baseball.)
At Changzhou, we sat in the stands and watched a well-played intrasquad game. We met “Randy,” a lanky, left-handed pitcher whose American baseball hero is Randy Johnson. He was 6-foot-1 and just 14 years old. Randy’s mother was a star volleyball player for the Chinese national team. His father threw the javelin.
Randy had little experience playing baseball when he was discovered by MLB China’s No. 1 talent scout and manager of development center operations, Simon Huang. Randy was a fine athlete and has picked up the sport quickly.
The pressure to deliver a major leaguer from China is evident at the development centers. Each year, MLB’s investment in player development rises. Club owners wait for a return.
According to one report, 15 major league clubs have sent scouts to China this year. The Baltimore Orioles recently signed Wuxi DC player Gui Yuan “Itchy” Xu to a 2016 minor league contract. He could become the first Chinese player to play pro baseball in the U.S. — maybe MLB’s Yao Ming. Bill Thomas, development center director in Changzhou, looked out at the players on the field and said, “If that first [pro prospect] is not here today, he’ll be here tomorrow.”
That was a lesson in sport globalization in real time.
Mark Hyman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant teaching professor of management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.