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THE HOT CORNER: Taiwan next stop on road to future

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THE HOT CORNER: Taiwan next stop on road to future

by Jim Allen (Nov 18, 2010)

It's a long, difficult road from local enterprise to international venture, but that's the road professional baseball has been traveling for some time.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle on that road is a paradigm shift from focusing exclusively on the next pennant race to the thought of growing a market beyond the confines of one's home country. After all, pro baseball was built on domestic league play. Pennant races are the staples of the business, but are no longer the only items on the menu.

International markets are something new to baseball. Growing and exploiting them, however, requires a bigger international profile and a different kind of commitment from teams used to just chasing pennants.

Getting baseball back in the Olympics--after its exclusion from the 2012 and 2016 Games--would be a significant achievement toward building the sport's image around the world.

Toward that end, Nippon Professional Baseball Commissioner Ryozo Kato met with his counterparts from Australia, South Korea and Taiwan in September. As a result of that meeting, Taiwan has offered to host a revived Asia Series in November 2011.

The club championship started in 2005 and was held at Tokyo Dome four times.

"It's been our goal to unite Asian baseball," Richard Wang, the secretary general of Taiwan's Chinese Professional Baseball League, told The Hot Corner by phone on Tuesday.

"From many years ago, we had a dream of having a champion of the Asia Series play against the major league champion."

Taiwan makes an interesting setting for the Series' revival, considering the CPBL is undergoing its own rebirth nine months after being rocked by a massive game-fixing scandal.

"It [the scandal] was somewhat of a disaster," Wang said. "But since then, we've gotten great support from the Taiwan government's baseball revival plan.

"We had trust issues. Baseball had been tainted with bad influences."

Wang says the government's recognition of pro baseball's role in the nation has been crucial.

"It's not just from government policy, but from law enforcement," he said. "This is so helpful to keep the bad things away from baseball."

Wang believes the more visible government role will make it easier to secure sponsors.

"More than just getting their names out in public, companies will see involvement with baseball as a positive thing," he said.

As a crucial part of today's baseball business, sponsorship--or the lack of it--can make or break a venture. The Asia Series began as the Konami Cup and for three years participating teams reaped the rewards of the sponsorship deal. In 2008, the tournament operated without Konami's cash and hasn't been played since.

In the meantime, Japan's champion and the winning team from the Korean Baseball Organization have squared off in a single game. A year ago, the Yomiuri Giants beat the KIA Tigers in Nagasaki. On Saturday, the Chiba Lotte Marines defeated the SK Wyverns at Tokyo Dome before a crowd of 32,743.

The strong gate ensured a profit, but was more a reflection on the Marines' fanatic local following than an indication of the tournament's popularity.

"Making money is good," Wang said. "But we need to build this Asian Series. It's our goal to unite Asian baseball. In the process, we try to make money."

A challenge for the 2011 tournament, will be finding a way to include a team from Australia, a difficult prospect considering the Australian Baseball League's schedule begins in early November, just as the Japan Series is ending.

Teams from Taiwan and South Korea already have to wait until the Japan Series ends in early November to meet Japan's champions.

To make international competition work, there needs to be coordination and compromise among teams and leagues, particularly in the touchy area of scheduling.

It isn't going to be easy, but when individual owners believe their operations will benefit from baseball having a higher international profile, they will jump on the bandwagon like nobody's business.

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