Baseball Makes a Mighty Pitch in China and Africa

Phillies Pitcher
Phillies Pitcher

Baseball may be America's game, but it's eager to expand in international markets. Recently, it has tried to recruit fans in China and Africa, but results have been mixed.

Major League Baseball is having a particularly hard time in China. As The Economist recently noted, the late Chairman Mao reportedly considered the game a symbol of the "decadent West" and encouraged the Chinese people to play basketball. This goes a long way toward explaining the National Basketballs Association's continued popularity in the People's Republic. Meanwhile, baseball has tried mightily to make inroads in the country for years, but continues to struggle.

"Despite a big promotional budget, MLB has not made much of an impression. It has brought branded clothing to Chinese stores, but not balls or bats," The Economist says. "Fields are rare. MLB is trying, belatedly, to rectify this, funding a development centre at a school in Wuxi that has access to a field created by expatriates."

Remember Harry Kingman?

Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province, has a league of its own, and the 12U Youth Baseball World Championship is scheduled to be held in Taipei in July. However, across the Taiwan Strait, the world's most populous country is still a baseball wasteland. In fact, China has only produced one Major Leaguer: Harry Kingman, a child of American missionaries, played for the New York Yankees between July 1, 1914 and August 20, 1914.

The minor leagues are even worse. According to Sean Forman, president of Sports Reference, no Chinese-born players have ever suited up for a minor league team.

Still, baseball isn't giving up on China. In 2007, MLBlaunched a grassroots program called Play Ball! at 120 elementary schools across China. At the same time, former players and coaches -- including Hall of Famer Cal Ripkin Jr. and Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder -- have conducted clinics in China. And in terms of TV programming, MLB signed a new broadcasting deal with three partners in China that expanded the audience for regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the World Series.

Out of Africa

MLB's prospects in Africa are more promising. While baseball is played in many African countries, it's probably most popular in South Africa, where Texas Rangers Pitcher C.J. Wilson recently conducted clinics. More than 250,000 players participate in adult and youth leagues, according to the South African Baseball Union.

MLB scouts have already found some promising talent there, signing eight South Africans and one Nigerian, according to an MLB spokeswoman. Anthony Philips of South Africa briefly played shortstop for the AAA affiliate of the Seattle Mariners, and Dylan "Sharky" Unsworth, a promising young pitcher from South Africa, also plays in the Mariners system. In 2008, Gift Ngoepe, a South African playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, became the first black African to sign a Major League contract. The infielder is still in the minor leagues.

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The Africa Baseball and Softball Association continues to promote the sport, which must vie for attention against more popular pastimes such as soccer and cricket. Baseball games are televised in Africa over ESPN.

However, while baseball doesn't always receive TV coverage, it is growing in popularity. "In countries such as Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon, Tunisia, Uganda, Senegal and even Cote d'Ivoire, to name a few, national championships are held regularly and are covered by media," Isidore Tameu, an ASBA spokesman, tells DailyFinance. "Unfortunately, media coverage does not always fulfill the hopes and expectations of the federations. Efforts are currently being implemented by ABSA for finding effective ways to increase the visibility of baseball in the media."

South Africa's temperate weather make it especially suitable for baseball because it can be played all year round.
The quality of the baseball, though, still needs to improve. South Africa got crushed in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, conceding 22 runs.

In an interview, Paul Archey, baseball's senior vice president of International Business Operations, says South Africa is at a place in its development where Australia was 15 years ago. Australian baseball has improved mightily in recent years and now has a professional league. In fact, the land down under has produced an impressive 25 U.S. major leaguers.

Eyes on the Ball

More foreign-born players are flocking to the minor leagues thanks to the Creating Opportunities for Minor League Professionals, Entertainers and Teams Act, which freed baseball teams from having to compete with other employers for H2b visas for foreign workers. In 2007, the law was signed into law by President George W. Bush, a former owner of the Texas Rangers.

As baseball grows internationally, Africa is becoming a promising resource for major league teams. As for China, baseball's future is a bit more questionable, but MLB will likely keep its eye on the ball there as well. After all, 1 billion people make for a mighty deep bench.