11 Nov 2016
Baseball Coaching Emerges as a Sporting and Cultural Phenomenon
More than just a pleasurable sporting pastime, baseball is seen by some mainland parents as key to securing places at certain US academic institutions, spurring the growth of a nationwide network of private coaching organisations.
With baseball becoming ever more popular across the mainland – both as a sporting pastime and an apparent CV perquisite for those looking to study in the US – appropriate training facilities and coaching are increasingly in demand. As a sign of the sport's popularity, Beijing is currently home to a fiercely competitive Little League, an annual tournament for junior baseball teams, while this year's Asian U12 Baseball Championships will take place in Guangdong next month.
Overall, the number of junior baseball clubs has grown significantly over the last year, with a quick internet search identifying 40 such organisations in the Beijing area alone. Despite this, there seems few fears that the market is anywhere near saturated.
Shrugging off such concerns, Chen Xiao, the Manager of Beijing's Niupeng Baseball Club, said: "The cake is big enough for none of us to need to worry unduly about there being too much competition. At present, we have a steady flow of youngsters looking to sign up. Many parents want to find a sport that really appeals to their children – after all, not everyone loves football, basketball or volleyball."
The passion for this particular sport, however, has not been solely driven by parents. Although only recently backed by the education authorities, more than 100 primary schools in the Beijing area already have baseball training facilities in place.
That fact that many Chinese students now go abroad to study at an earlier age than before has also driven the general enthusiasm for all things baseball. In particular, parents see baseball skills as a real asset when it comes to securing places for their children to study in the US.
Keen to fit in with the demanding schedule of Chinese students, many professional baseball organisations now timetable their training sessions to coincide with academic downtime. This has led to an increasing number of weekend, summer and winter training camps becoming available. The majority of these are organised in co-operation with local schools, frequently making use of their training facilities.
A more recent innovation has been the introduction of overseas training camps. Typically priced at between RMB30,000 and 40,000 (US$4,400-5,900), as well as teaching baseball skills, such camps also offer an introduction to the sport as a cultural phenomenon, while also looking to build interpersonal skills between youngsters of different nationalities.
Branding Becoming a Trend
Although the mainland's baseball industry is still in its infancy, it is believed to have huge potential. The key factor here is seen as nurturing interest among the young, with this then becoming the bedrock for developing the sector among subsequent generations.
In line with this, a Ms Yang, a coach with Beijing's Winners baseball club Winners (Shengli) emphasized that the current focus had to be very much on popularising the sport among students. Echoing this sentiment, Chen said: "Here at Niupeng, our maxim is always: 'Act as the guide and companion to the young'."
Despite the rapid growth of the number of baseball training clubs in Beijing, very few have emerged as trusted brands. At present, hardly any – apart from Shengli and Niupeng – have a real level of recognition among parents.
Inevitably, after two years of such rapid growth, the junior baseball training sector has developed somewhat unevenly. By and large, it is seen as consisting of almost as many substandard operators as quality players. The high levels of demand, however, have allowed even the less professional operators to turn a profit and attract young sign-ups. It is now expected that the sector will begin to mature over the medium term, with the better-quality operators coming to the fore as respected brands, while the substandard ones are squeezed out of the market.
In order to achieve this, however, a number of issues will need to be addressed. Most notably, many of the current operators will need to refine their business models, while also improving the quality of both their facilities and their coaching staff.
This year, though, the sector received a considerable boost when it was officially endorsed by the government. This has resulted in a number of official targets being announced for 2025. These include the establishment of 200 official baseball-training grounds and the setting up of 5,000 recognised teams, both professional and amateur. Overall, it is envisaged that around five million mainlanders will have an active interest in the sport within the next nine years.
The Chinese Baseball Association is also committed to nurturing the junior training sector. To this end, it is looking to affiliate all privately run baseball clubs and create a register of approved baseball training courses, all taught and organised by its members.
Cheng Gong, Special Correspondent, Beijing