Fun fact: One of the top TV shows in China is called “Boyhood” and it’s centered around baseball. The stars of the show, a famous Chinese boy band named The TFBoys, are trying to turn around a struggling baseball team. Its the top-rated show in its timeslot.
Baseball’s popularity in China seems to be ramping up. The number of colleges and universities with baseball teams has doubled in China in the past six years. MLB games are available to almost one billion people on Chinese TV. In the past year alone, more than 40 new baseball facilities have been built in China.
So Major League Baseball is betting on China long-term by announcing a 10-year real-estate deal Friday that it hopes will grow the sports significantly. MLB is partnering with Beijing Enterprises Real-Estate Group Limited, a state-owned company, to open 20 new baseball facilities.
The MLB facilities will teach baseball skills to children in grades 7 through 12 and offer mainstream school curriculum. It’s not an entirely different idea than some of the baseball academies that have been opened in Latin America. Right now, MLB has three development centers in China. They’ve turned out 36 players in the last four years that have gone on to play higher levels of baseball in the U.S., China, Japan or Korea. Three of the players have signed MLB contracts, 11 are on the Chinese National Team and 12 play professionally in China.
What’s notable about this relationship is how much the Chinese government’s development wing is involved. Beijing Enterprises Real-Estate Group Limited — often shortened to BEREGL — is also developing venues for the 2022 Olympics in Beijing, and its work with MLB would be somewhat similar, searching for locations and property. MLB would then help with all baseball aspects of the facilities.
“This relationship with BEREGL will seek to accelerate our growth and to provide first-rate facilities and coaching for the increasing number of Chinese baseball players,” said Jim Small, MLB Vice President, Asia Pacific, said in a statement. “We are honored to team up with one of China’s most forward-thinking, innovative and successful companies as we build momentum for baseball in the country.”
In recent years, MLB has tried to expand its reach around the world, playing games in various countries. Pro players from Japan and Taiwan have been coming to MLB for years, Korea has ramped up recently too. But China is still something of an untapped market. Two China-born players have made it the big leagues — Harry Kingman in 1914 and Austin Brice in 2016 — but neither was of Chinese descent.
Guiyuan Xu was signed by the Baltimore Orioles in 2016, the first player from the current MLB development centers in China to sign with an MLB club. He’s 21 and has played just 46 games in rookie ball the past two years, but would be the first Chinese player to reach the big leagues if he plays for the Orioles. Hai-Cheng Gong, 18, was signed by the Pirates in May but has yet to play in the minors. The Red Sox signed Justin Qiangba, 16-year-old catcher, in July.
If things go according to plan following Friday’s announcement, if the 20 MLB development centers produce the type of talent the league is hoping for, the next generation of Chinese baseball players would be even bigger.
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