MLB's China operation knocking it out the ball park

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Around 400 teams have featured in the MLB China Cup, a nationwide youth tournament designed to encourage kids to take up baseball. CHINA DAILY

With more and more kids picking up bats and gloves, efforts to build a "baseball ecosystem" in China continue to yield impressive results. And with Major League Baseball a key contributor to the drive, Chinese kids are learning from the very best in the business.

"The baseball environment has changed dramatically since MLB entered the Chinese market. When we first came to China in 2007, the baseball population in the country was very limited," Tony Qi, managing director of MLB China, told China Daily in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.

"But in 2019, iResearch conducted a survey and published a white paper on China's baseball development. At the time, the active baseball population had reached over 20 million.

"What's more important is that, among the 20 million baseball lovers, over 60 percent are new fans who were attracted to the sport since 2016. That showed the fast development of baseball in China."

According to the white paper, China's total "baseball population", including players, coaches, administrators and fans, totaled 41 million in 2019, of which 21 million were classified as "active". Most were located in major cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Among active fans, 81.5 percent were classified as "baseball consumers", 45.7 percent regularly watched games and 40 percent played the game or had done so in the past.

As part of the joint efforts to create a "baseball ecosystem" in China, MLB has been endeavoring to level up the quality of the MLB Cup.

Inaugurated in 2008, the youth championship has steadily grown to include around 400 teams by 2021.

"When we first organized the youth baseball tournament in five Chinese cities in 2008, each city featured only one age-group category. But this year we have 20 cities, and in some cities we have competitions for five age groups," said Qi.

"In certain cities, there are dozens of teams wanting to join our competition. During one recent season in Beijing, there were about 100 teams that wanted to participate in the MLB Cup. So, MLB, the Chinese Baseball Association and local baseball associations are all working together for a brighter Chinese baseball future.

"Government policy is also a huge help. China is now aiming to let the next generation enjoy various sports, and has implemented a series of preferential policies. So more and more baseball clubs are growing in China."

Qi revealed that the sport is becoming increasingly popular with girls, with the MLB Cup happy to have mixed teams of boys and girls involved.

"At the MLB Cup this year, the kids played with much better skills and conducted themselves so well," he said.

"That's because, these youth baseball clubs now have much better communications with each other, and there are many more youth tournaments for them to play.

"MLB also provides these future stars with many online courses to learn about baseball. Kids enjoy a much better baseball environment that can help them to continuously level up their strength.

"During the final of the spring season in our MLB Cup in Qingdao, four of the matches were broadcast online, and viewed about half a million times on the match day. Those are pretty impressive numbers for youth matches without any stars on the field."

Meanwhile, MLB's 'First Pitch Clinic' targets younger kids in schools, introducing pupils to the sport with the help of MLB coaches.

"MLB First Pitch allows kids to have their first taste of baseball, and this greatly aids our efforts to build a baseball ecosystem," said Qi.

Olympic boost

The return of baseball as an official Olympic medal event at Tokyo 2020 has provided an additional boost to the sport.

"We were all very happy to learn baseball was returning as an Olympic sport. After all, the Olympic Games are the highest international platform for competitive sports," added Qi.

"Also in China, Olympic sports always attract the most attention. So the return is very significant to baseball's development in China. During the Tokyo Games, several Chinese platforms broadcast the Olympic baseball games.

"Even though Team China did not participate in the baseball event in Tokyo, fans still wanted to watch the games. That showed just how much they love the sport."

Audiences have also been wooed by the 2020 documentary Tough Out, which charts the lives of a group of Chinese teenagers whose lives are transformed through baseball.

"A film like Tough Out is very important to the promotion of baseball in China. In the documentary, the kids build a new home in their baseball team, together with their coaches, including 70-year-old Zhang Jinxin and Sun Lingfeng, the former Chinese national baseball team player, in a Beijing suburb," said Qi.

"The notion of home is very important in baseball culture. Hence, terms like home run and home plate. Through baseball, these kids gained home, friendship and confidence. They also gained the courage to fight against the tough situations they found themselves in.

"Such films can attract more kids to the sport. We're planning to produce more content like this to promote baseball culture. We have even established a studio to create such content. We have also launched a baseball animation called Baseball 101, which was viewed over 18 million times last year. Building on that success, Baseball 102 is on the way this year."

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