On May 8, 2020, the first baseball game of the decade to be played in front of a live audience, anywhere in the world, took place in Taiwan. It was a special occasion. Taiwan had just marked 26 consecutive days with no new cases of Covid-19, and the government had decided that 1,000 lucky fans would be allowed to watch the Fubon Guardians face off against the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions, in person. Minister of Health Chen Shih-chung gave a speech on the field, wearing a jersey with the number zero to celebrate the successful containment. But as the players jogged out, the seats in New Taipei City’s Xinzhuang Baseball Stadium were still largely deserted.
Since the start of the season, the four teams in the Chinese Professional Baseball League (CPBL) had played in cavernous stadiums that were empty except for cardboard cutouts of fans and the occasional drum-playing robot. Cheerleaders broadcast their enthusiasm via video call. Home run balls clattered in bleachers under the outfield seats.
Yet that didn’t mean the league was being ignored. Despite the vacant stands, a million viewers around the world were tuning in online. That night, as the Guardians overtook the Lions to eke out a 7–6 win, the game’s livestream got more than 1.1 million views on Twitter.
Measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic around the world have put live sports on hold almost everywhere (with a few exceptions, like Tajikistan and Belarus). With its low numbers of confirmed cases, Taiwan was in the unique position of being one of the few places on the planet where professional games could safely be played.
Rob Liu has been writing about Taiwan’s league since 2015 on his blog, CPBL Stats, and is considered the English-language authority on the subject. While the average attendance at a game last year was about 6,000 people, Liu said that, so far, this year’s games are averaging at least 700,000 views on Twitter. He added that his site has seen a tenfold increase in traffic this season compared with last year. “For the first time in 31 years, people are finding out there’s baseball going on in Taiwan,” he says. “I always joke that it’s the biggest league nobody knows about.”
There is a long tradition in baseball of rooting for the underdog, and by any account, Taiwan’s league is an underdog. Even the league’s name — a reference to Taiwan’s official name, the Republic of China — invokes the island’s complicated geopolitical status. Because China claims Taiwan as part of its territory, all but 15 nations do not officially recognize it as a peer. That puts it in the position of at once boasting one of the world’s most successful Covid-19 containment strategies while still being barred from a seat in major international organizations. (In the Olympics and other competitions, Taiwan competes as Chinese Taipei.) “As a country, we are pretty much ignored,” Liu remarked. “At many international sporting events, we aren’t even allowed to say Taiwan.”
The CPBL is consistently overshadowed by the Nippon Professional Baseball Organization in Japan, which is known to feed players to the U.S., and the Korea Baseball Organization in South Korea, which attracted the attention of ESPN with its flashy bat flips and high-end production. Additionally, the CPBL spent the 1990s and 2000s mired in game-fixing scandals and struggling with underinvestment. Things were so bad that at one point Richard Wang, who had called games in Mandarin for local TV for six years, was asked to call games on the radio so the league could save money.
When it became clear in mid-April that the coronavirus pandemic would prevent Major League Baseball from opening the season on schedule, Eleven Sports Taiwan decided to take a shot at the huge global audience hungry for live sports. Wang was tapped by the company to announce the broadcasts in English and was given only a few days to prepare. He spent them riding his motorbike around Taipei, listening to old MLB games through his helmet, and practicing his lines. He’s on track to call close to 100 games this season and said that the first five alone collectively tallied more than 5 million views on Twitter — and not just among fans in the U.S. missing their teams but also viewers in Singapore and Japan. “All this exposure is very good for Taiwan,” he remarked recently, after a game in which the Guardians lost their bid to sweep a series against the Chinatrust Bank Brothers. “We don’t get that much of a chance to promote ourselves.”
Baseball is a game for those who appreciate the long view of an incremental strategy and the endurance required to achieve it. After many years of playing in relative obscurity, Taiwan’s teams finally have the opportunity to showcase what makes them unique. According to YouTube star Cheng Yu-Lun, who is famous for his Mandarin-language baseball videos, the CPBL is notable for being a batter-friendly league. “Even if the score is 8–3 in the bottom of the ninth inning, you still can’t be certain which team will win,” said Cheng, who is also known as “Tainan Josh.”
The CPBL’s games have also highlighted Taiwan’s ability to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. While other countries debated funding and resources, Taiwan closed its borders to foreign travelers and set up an online mask distribution system. The result has been that Taiwan has been home to just 442 of the world’s more than 4 million cases of Covid-19, with seven deaths.
Had Taiwan not made the decision to broadcast the CPBL season in English on Twitter, “the games would still be unknown to the rest of the world,” said Simone Kang, managing director of Eleven Sports Taiwan. “I feel proud that I could help our players feel proud of themselves, knowing there are millions of fans watching them compete.” Liu, the baseball blogger, said he wasn’t sure if the surge of Twitter streams would translate into millions of new fans in the long term, but he was hopeful that it could prompt a revived interest in the game at home. “For many Taiwanese fans,” he reflected, “this is validation.”