With its morale-boosting first pitch on April 12 and a combined 33 home runs through the first 11 games, Taiwan’s major baseball league smoothly concluded its opening week of the new season amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Even with zero fans in attendance due to regulations designed to combat the virus’ spread, the island’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) has attracted unprecedented attention from baseball fans across the globe. The 31-year-old sports league is getting a boost to its visibility and reputation while filling a void left by canceled and postponed matches worldwide.
Beyond baseball diamonds, Taiwan’s international profile as a whole has also been raised by its swift response to the pandemic. The government’s rapid actions — it intensified airport quarantine inspection starting on December 31 and activated the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) on January 20 — coupled with the vigilance of Taiwan’s 23.6 million people, have so far contained the outbreak to 428 confirmed cases and six deaths. Among the COVID-19 cases, 343 were imported and 55 acquired through local transmissions; the remaining 30 were linked to a naval vessel that had visited Palau in March.
Taiwan’s medical network of infectious disease prevention and treatment, built by the island’s Centers for Disease Control in the wake of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003, have overall provided effective logistical support for healthcare workers during the current pandemic, mobilizing such resources as negative pressure rooms and personal protective equipment. Several private companies have also partnered with the government to increase daily mask production from 2 million in January to 15 million in April. This not only assured the general public that the mask supply is sufficient, but also enabled Taiwan to donate at least 16 million surgical masks to countries in need, including 7 million masks to European countries and 2 million masks to the United States. The collective actions show that both the public and private sectors in Taiwan have been helping battle against the pandemic as well as keep its economy, and the national pastime, up and running.
For sports fans around the world, watching live games, not replays, is a considerable luxury at this moment. For professional players and coaches, being allowed to compete and continue their career statistics is even more priceless. With that in mind, staying extra vigilant and implementing stringent measures for COVID-19 containment is the optimal choice for the CPBL and its five clubs. After all, no one wants to drop the ball — either inside or outside the stadiums.
It was not an easy call when the CPBL decided to “play ball” without spectators. The league originally considered allowing at most 150 season ticket holders to attend each game at the beginning of the season. Fans would be asked to wear face masks and sit in assigned seats to ensure social distancing. However, as the country confronted the second wave of the disease fueled by imported cases from mid-March to early April, the CPBL on April 1 announced a “no-fans” policy until further notice. According to CPBL commissioner John Wu, including players, coaches, umpires, home team cheerleaders, stadium staff, and media members, the number of people in each ballpark can be controlled between 150 and 200, which complies with the CECC’s recommendation against mass gatherings of more than 500 people outdoors. Wu also urged fans to avoid contacts with players near the stadiums, club residences, and training sites to reduce loopholes in epidemic prevention work.
The four major league teams in Taiwan, namely the Rakuten Monkeys in Taoyuan, the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions in Tainan, the Fubon Guardians in New Taipei, and the Chinatrust Brothers in Taichung, have all taken stringent precautions. For the first time in the CPBL’s history, each team has scheduled its 60 home team games in its home stadiums – except for the Lion’s five games in Hualien, a county on the east coast that is home to many top Taiwanese indigenous players. This reduces the number of baseball fields hosting games from seven last year to five this year, streamlining logistical management such as travel to and from stadiums as well as daily cleaning and disinfection of all these venues.
Although there is no baseball “bubble” as players are playing across the country and can be visited by their families, all team members — including those with the Wei Chuan Dragons, which is in the minor league this season — have been well surveilled by the clubs’ staff. In addition to intensive temperature checks, players are banned from eating out and using high speed rail on road trips. Under the current public health situation, testing is not required for players. However, if there is one confirmed case in the CPBL, the whole season will be put on hold.
In a scenario where games are played with no spectators through the first half of the 240-game regular season, the ballpark figure for the financial damage done to the four major league clubs would be over NT$300 million (US$10 million) in total. But with challenges also come opportunities. Sports broadcaster Eleven Sports Taiwan unprecedentedly streamed the home games of the Rakuten Monkeys live with English commentary on Twitter. The five games covered in the first week have collectively been viewed more than 5 million times globally. Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen also tweeted the game on April 17, expressing her gratitude to baseball fans around the world for “staying up late or getting up early to cheer for the first hit with us in Taiwan.”
The four major league clubs, which hold the broadcast rights to their home games, have negotiated terms with sports broadcasters to advance their English broadcasts. If executed successfully, they may increase not only the international fan base for the clubs but also the brand values for their owner companies. That could cover some revenue loss from tickets, food, souvenirs, and other fan-related goods and services. When the dust settles from the pandemic, these ballparks could even become tourist attractions for international visitors — just as the North American and Japanese professional baseball stadiums are usually among top tourist destinations for baseball fans in Taiwan.
Given that Major League Baseball in the United States and Nippon Professional Baseball in Japan are debating when and how to start the new season, and the Korea Baseball Organization is looking to throw its first pitch on May 5, the CPBL’s practice of no fans in the stands and relevant stringent measures may be worth referencing. Taiwan’s case shows that battling COVID-19 is like a baseball game. It takes collective efforts to get the last hitter out in the ninth inning. During these challenging times we all need to step up to the plate and make a difference — including the robot drummers, mannequins, and cardboard cutouts of fans currently in the stands in Taiwan’s ballparks.
Bo-jiun Jing is a Ph.D. candidate in International Political Economy at King’s College London and a co-founder of ASEAN Plus Journal in Taiwan.