After basketball scored such great success in China – visible both in the number of basketball courts and in the National Basketball Association’s sales – several other sports leagues have come to the Middle Kingdom to seek a foothold in its potentially huge market.
Major League Baseball (MLB), the Arena Football League (AFL) and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have all expanded in China in recent years.
The organizations are setting up Chinese branches, holding events and working to grow a talent pool among Chinese youth. The first Chinese players are also being drafted by major teams, raising more local interest in the sports.
But the change is coming slowly.
After planning an inaugural season this fall, the China American Football League (CAFL) announced it would postpone its debut until the fall of 2016. The league is the brainchild of American businessman Martin Judge and rugby player David Niu.
The UFC actually tailored a whole season around China, with 12 episodes airing from December 2013 to January 2014. But this year, the organization skipped China, instead organizing events in other Asian countries such as Philippines, South Korea and Japan.
MLB opened a Beijing office in 2007 and has been slowly growing new players through its training centers. The organization is lobbying for the sport to be introduced in schools’ physical education curricula, but a breakthrough appears to be a long way off.
Leon Xie, managing director of MLB China, kept a list of all his professional friends who questioned his career move in 2009. They said baseball was an “alien” sport, destined for obscurity in China.
The country only had three major baseball diamonds, one of which – the 2008 Olympic stadium – was bulldozed to make way for a mall. And even though the sport used to be popular in Chinese colleges in the first part of the 20th century, the Cultural Revolution practically erased it from memory.
Today, Xie sends his friends emails with every new field, partnership and inroad the sport is making into China. In the eight years it’s been present here, the MLB has helped train the national team ahead of the Beijing Olympics; negotiated the airing of baseball games on 10 television channels; launched ad campaigns and developed a baseball reality TV show.
But the league’s main challenge is to raise talent, Xie told Newsweek. The game is now taught at 120 primary schools and at three MLB development centers in Jiangsu province. The organization also sponsors Beijing’s college league.
Several colleges around the country have baseball teams. The 2009 documentary Diamond in the Dunes featured a Uygur-Chinese mixed baseball team at Xinjiang University and their attempt to defeat the Qinghan Tibetan College baseball team.
Jim Small, MLB vice president for Asia, said during a press conference in April that he hoped one of the league’s development centers would train a star baseball player within five years – a baseball equivalent of Yao Ming.
In July, the league announced that the Baltimore Orioles signed Shenzhen-native Xu Guiyuan to a 2016 minor league deal – the first Chinese export to come from the training centers. From there to widespread popularity is a long road, but the league says it’s willing to walk it one step at a time.
“We are doing things consistently, and from grassroots,” Small said, according to Xinhua.
Unlike baseball and basketball, American football doesn’t have a long history in China. That didn’t deter Martin Judge, owner of the arena football team Philadelphia Soul, from dreaming up a big future for the sport in China.
“It’s possible that someday the CAFL could be bigger in China than the NFL is [in the U.S.],” Judge told Forbes. “In China there are 1.4 billion people, four times the number [in the US]…. With the backing of the Chinese government, the sky is the limit for how we can grow American football in the vast, untapped Chinese marketplace.”
Judge said arena-style American football suits Chinese viewers better than regular football because of its faster pace and higher scoring. CAFL was expected to launch in September, with six teams in two conferences. The teams were going to be based in major cities and include both Chinese and American players.
Each franchise owner was going to invest $10 million per team and receive a share of TV licensing rights.
In developing CAFL, Judge tapped Edward Wang, the first player with full Chinese ancestry to play in the National Football League. Wang, who played for the Buffalo Bills, recently moved to Beijing to train players and help with management of the new league.
But earlier this year, CAFL announced it would postpone the inaugural season until the fall of 2016 “in order to lay a solid foundation for the launch of the” league.
Mixed Martial Arts
The UFC also looked for gold in China. The mixed martial arts promotion company produced its fourth international season in the country. The episodes aired on Liaoning Television from December 2013 until January 2014, with the finale taking place on March 1, 2014 at Macau’s Cotai Arena.
While the players were mostly newcomers – thus flying under the radar of the game’s aficionados – the fights were among the most entertaining of the year, some said.
China’s mixed martial arts players often come from poor rural communities. Many endure years of struggle and deprivation as they train to achieve their dreams. But for them as well as the UFC the promise of success in China’s market makes it worthwhile.
“The UFC is like every other sports league in the world – they see enormous financial possibility in China,” author Jonathan Snowden told AFP. “What they see are more than a billion possible customers. That’s very alluring.”
Nevertheless, this year, UFC focused on exploring new Asian markets such as Philippines and South Korea, leaving China behind, at least for the moment.