Taiwan Baseball: Mobster Paradise? (Page 2 of 2)

Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou apparently agreed after his KMT colleague and 40 players were indicted in 2009.

Ma ordered a $31 million four-year plan to prop up the league and rebuild the sport from the ground up. Those efforts were supposed to buttress a Sports Lottery Act, which passed through parliament in 2007 and was meant to take the wind out of the gangster’s sails by offering a legal alternative to the underground sports books.

However, baseball insiders claim that the drafting of the act was yet another rigged outcome in order to ensure that the Taiwan Sports Lottery couldn’t compete with the black market.

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Fubon Bank, the island’s second largest lender by assets and winner of the six-year bid to operate the lottery, says it has been losing money each year due to a “regulatory environment” that stifles competition.

Among the bank’s chief complaints about the final passage of the act is a maximum 75 percent dividend cap on bet payouts. Illegal syndicates payout 90 to 110 percent on bets, increasing the odds for the hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese who use their services.

The Sports Lottery also doesn’t allow for wagers to be placed online or via text messages. At present, all betting slips must be run through one of the 1,000-plus outlets dotting the island. Compounding Fubon’s problems are reports that a number of legal shop owners are also taking wagers for the syndicates.  

Pundits say that the gangs then place legal bets with the outlets in order to launder cash from their gambling and other illegal businesses, such as drugs and prostitution.

“We suspect this problem goes back a long way and is pretty deeply entwined with the fabric of Taiwanese culture,” says Chris Day, spokesman for the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association. “If you’ve got lawmakers, important politicians and Mafioso in the mix, then how can you clean this up? These guys are untouchable.  Why do you think nothing has changed in the past decade?”

But perhaps it’s Taiwanese baseball’s immediate future that baseball administrators should be most concerned about.

The Taiwan Sports Lottery Company, the Fubon subsidiary that runs the sports book, won the bid by offering to pay the government about $670 million over the course of the six-year contract. However, TSLC says that anticipated sales are down about 57 percent, and it’s now looking to either terminate the agreement or restructure it with substantially reduced payments. 

And that’s bad news for baseball, which was guaranteed a percentage of those funds. Baseball officials say the cash is needed to rebuild grassroots development of the game as fan confidence falls to new lows.

Ballpark attendance has plummeted by about 45 percent since 2004, and the league is finding it more difficult to retain and attract sponsors as each new lurid scandal is splashed across the sport’s pages.

“We want to solve these problems,” says an employee of the cabinet-level Sports Affairs Council, which oversees the lottery for the government. “But if we want to change payouts we will need a revision in the law. And that’s pretty hard to do.”

Cain Nunns is a freelance journalist who writes for The Guardian, Monocle and Global Post, among other publications.

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