Lubbock, TX — By now, it sort of goes without saying that COVID-19 fundamentally disrupted (and is still disrupting) organizations and activities on a global scale. Indeed the pandemic is far from over, and already I shudder to think about where we might be headed given a profound lack of engagement with even the most basic precautionary measures.
Thinking back to our time in Taipei, one of the plan I’d had was to check out the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) — the highest level of professional baseball in Taiwan. For sure, 2020 was set to be an important year for baseball in Taiwan, with the CPBL entering its 31st season of play and the final qualifying baseball for the 2020 Olympics scheduled to be hosted in Taichung (which would have featured the US Baseball team). Sadly, even the make-up tournament in 2021 was moved from Taiwan due to local COVID-19 case surges.
Although those Olympic games did not happen, something remarkable did happen in Taiwan — and it was seen the world over on 12 April 2020, when the Uni-President Lions defeated the CTBC Brothers 4-1 in the first and only professional baseball game played on Earth.
To most baseball fans not in Taiwan (maybe excepting a few diehard MLB fans following former Major Leaguers in the Taiwanese league), these teams were hardly familiar and likewise, even the abbreviation CPBL was not so familiar — even the use of “Chinese” in CPBL was a source of confusion for some spectators, who didn’t realize they were stepping into a decades-long political debate given long-standing tensions between Taiwan and mainland China.
For nearly two months, the CPBL was the only professional baseball league actively playing games. The first homerun was hit in the first inning of opening day (by Kai-Wen Cheng of the Uni-Lions) and by extension, was the “first meaningful homerun of the year.” A few days later, former Houston Astros pitcher Henry Sosa started a fight marked as the first bench-clearing brawl of the year (nobody to my knowledge attached the adjective “meaningful” to that one).
Along with setting milestones and grabbing international attention, teams also had to set a standard for playing in front of pandemic-mandated empty stadiums. In a bid to help preserve some sense of normalcy for the players on the field, CPBL teams experimented with cardboard and robotic fans in stands in a practice that was embraced worldwide in the months following.
How did the CPBL do it? A series of intense meetings between CPBL shareholders (teams, staff, and players) as well as local health officials to ensure that all was being done to preserve the integrity of the game while also mitigating COVID-19 infection risks.
As you can see in the timeline, the season was played successfully. Albeit delayed, all 240 regularly-scheduled games of the 2020 CPBL season were played with the Uni-Lions winning the final for games of the best-of-seven Taiwan Series Championship to secure their 10th league title.
So … did the world seem to notice?
Using information from Social Blade analytics, we can see a impressive gains in the Twitter followers for two accounts dedicated to CPBL: the league’s official @CPBL account and the unofficial English home of CPBL news @GOCPBL. For both accounts, there is a clear and dramatic increase in gained followers right around April and May 2020, corresponding with the league’s global baseball exclusivity.
Moreover, other sources such as Rob Liu’s CPBL Stats (the English-language web page companion to @GOCPBL) reported gains of 1400% in terms of monthly unique site visits during the pandemic, with traffic patterns “definitely more than pre-pandemic” moving into the current 2021 season. Those spikes in followers reported above have not waned and although the league (and its teams) no longer provide English-language content, there is some residual interest in these teams even today.
Sadly, no US-based broadcasters picked up broadcasting rights CPBL games in the 2020 season (for example, ESPN did broadcast Korean Baseball Organization games later in 2020). Local Taiwanese network Eleven Sports Taiwan (@ElevenSportsTW) did experiment with English-language broadcast via livestreaming during the season, with at least one broadcast reaching more than five million viewers around the world. Veteran broadcaster (and former CPBL official) Richard Wang (@RWang_WBSC) was tapped to provide English commentary, and continued to do so for the the rest of the season (alongside Canadian broadcaster Wayne McNeil (@WayneSMcNeil).
It’s yet to be known the impact of this global exposure on the CPBL’s global reputation. Our team did a brief content analysis of US-based (or at least, English-language) headlines of about 60 different online news articles published in April and May 2020, and while there was quite a bit of interested in the league and its novelty, it was not always clear that this interest moved past novelty.
I can’t speak for others, but my interest in the CPBL has sustained pretty strongly. I’m not quite sure I have a favorite team yet but I do follow the games when I can through their own streaming service CPBL-TV. I’ll report back once I find a winner, although the Uni-Lions seem to be pretty consistently amazing — and Tainan has a dear and special place in mine (and my family’s) heart, as it could well be considered our birthplace.
Portions of this blog are part of a larger research project into the CPBL’s operations during COVID-19. A very special thanks to Yen-Hui Alex Hsu (許彥輝) and Lindsey Jean Resignato for their co-authorship of our larger project, and to @CPBLGo and Rob Liu for providing us with additional information about the international response to their content. We also appreciate Dr. Cynthia Wang (California State University-Los Angeles, @cyndaminthia) and Dr. Steve Bien-Aime (Northern Kentucky University, @Steve_BienAime) for encouraging us to pursue this project, and inviting us to submit to their developing book project “Perceptions of East Asians and Asian Americans in Sports.“