“Take me out to the Ballgame” in Beijing

Beijing BaseballWhere the National Football League failed, Major League Baseball has succeeded in playing its first game in China. I was very excited to learn last year that the NFL had decided to bring its 300-pound-plus linemen to China for the first time in August, 2007, and would play a game in Workers Stadium, just blocks from my apartment in Beijing. That never happened, apparently amid concerns about the readiness of the Worker Stadium venue. But, on Saturday afternoon, March 15, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres played to a 3-3 tie on a near-perfect Saturday in Beijing, with clear blue skies replacing the city’s usual smog, and 50-degree temperatures, making it a glorious debut for baseball. (Perhaps a good omen for August?)

The crowd of 12,224, although small by U.S. standards, was reportedly a near-sellout. The game was played at Wukesong Baseball Field, a new Olympic venue, and all of the sights, sounds and smells of baseball in the U.S.– vendors selling peanuts, soft drinks, beer and hot dogs and periodic blasts of organ music to pump up the fans–were present. Except for the lower prices for food and drink and the fact that the game didn’t go into extra innings to break the tie, it was just like watching baseball in the United States by all accounts.

Thanks to George Steinbrenner, Beijing’s fans also got to see something that New York fans will be deprived of this year–Joe Torre, the new Dodgers manager. I’m sure that the Yankee fans in the crowd were happy to see Joe, who was clearly impressed with baseball in China. “With all the attention, all the media I thought it felt a bit more like a regular-season game than a spring training game,” he said.

Major League Baseball can hardly be blamed for trying to build an audience in China. Every one of Jim McGregor’s one billion customers is a potential baseball fan. Of the major professional sports, basketball has had a headstart in this regard. When first visiting Chinese factories in 1993, I was surprised to see a basketball court somewhere on the property at nearly every one.

With the emergence of Chinese stars like Yao Ming, basketball is now reaping the rewards. A match between Yao’s Houston Rockets and the Milwaukee Bucks, which last year drafted rising Chinese star Yi Jianlian, was one of the most watched TV events in China in 2007, drawing an audience of between 100-200 million. When you consider that this year’s exciting Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants was one of the most watched ever, yet drew an audience of merely 97.5 million, you can begin to appreciate the lure of the vast China market. Play ball!

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