Taiwan’s pro baseball league played the first game of its 2020 season on April 12, becoming one of the few leagues to resume its schedule as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic and drawing interest from global fans eager to watch live sports.
Fans in Taiwan can’t attend ballgames, however: Large gatherings remain banned in Taiwan, so some teams have replaced spectators with robots and cardboard cutouts.
Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) is believed to be the only major pro baseball league holding games. Its Super Basketball League (SBL), meanwhile, has completed its regular season and opened its playoffs on Tuesday, making it likely to be the only major basketball league still playing.
Major League Baseball postponed its Opening Day due to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, while the NBA suspended its season in March after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for COVID-19. Almost all major professional sports leagues, from European soccer to Indian cricket, have been put on hold indefinitely.
That’s left sports fans eager to watch games with very few places to turn. Among the options is Taiwan, which has confirmed just 395 cases of COVID-19 and reported no new cases on two days this week, on Tuesday and Thursday, alleviating the need for more stringent containment measures.
“Compared with the rest of the world, Taiwan as of right now is doing pretty well when it comes to containing the disease,” health minister Chen Shih-chung told reporters at a Thursday briefing.
Taiwan’s successes allowed the CPBL to schedule the start of its season on April 11. Its first game was held the next day after two April 11 contests were postponed due to rainy weather.
The games have brought unprecedented international interest to the CPBL, which consists of five teams.
The Eleven Sports Taiwan network is streaming the home games of one team, the reigning champion Rakuten Monkeys, live and with English commentary on Twitter. According to state-owned Focus Taiwan, Eleven Sports said 650,000 viewers watched the Monkeys notch a 9-8 win over the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions on Wednesday.
“The game showed the whole world what was made possible as a result of the country’s efforts against COVID-19,” Simone Kang, Eleven Sports managing director for Taiwan, said Thursday.
The Rakuten Monkeys gained worldwide attention when they announced their plan to put “robot mannequins” in the stands, holding signs and wearing jerseys, hats, and face masks. “Since we are not allowed to have any fans in attendance, we might as well have some fun with it,” said the team’s general manager, Justin Liu, per the website CPBL Stats.
The CPBL has received the lion’s share of attention in baseball-crazed Taiwan, but they are not the country’s only pro sports league to hold live games.
Taiwan’s SBL, which began its playoffs this week, is holding games in a solitary training center after the Taiwanese government on March 19 ordered all government-controlled arenas to close and suspended indoor events with over 100 people. The league originally planned to suspend its season for two weeks before relocating to the gym, which one player told the New York Times felt like playing in “a rec center.”
Marc Stein of the Times profiled the SBL’s operations in an April 10 article, noting it could serve as potential model for the NBA, which has explored resuming its suspended season at a centralized, isolated location without fans in attendance.
It’s not business as usual in the SBL: Aside from the absence of fans, players have their temperatures checked upon entering the training center and have their hands sprayed with hand sanitizer during timeouts, Stein reported. Some team staff on the bench, along with players listed as inactive, wear facemasks.
Taiwan is also considering organizing a broadcast competition among its cricket clubs after Indian broadcasters approached Taiwan Cricket, which operates independently of the government, asking for rights to stream games in Taipei, the Taipei Times reported on Thursday.
Although Taiwan is hardly known for being enthusiastic about cricket, fans in India and around the world are desperate for live action as India’s top cricket league has been postponed until further notice.
Taiwanese sports are filling a void for fans, but its leagues are also giving hope to postponed leagues around the world eager to restart operations without endangering public safety.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Tuesday he sees a path to the return of live sports. As the nation’s top leagues consider resuming their seasons, they may be able to learn from Taiwan.