Hoopes Away From Home
Higher pay and better competition has recently attracted Taiwanese basketball players across the straits to compete in the mainland CBA
“It’s like going abroad for higher learning. A better environment helps one a lot.”
On October 30, bearded, long-haired Tseng Wen-ting, six feet six inches tall in his sneakers and known as “Taiwan’s best center,” took a three-hour bus ride from Shanghai to Chuji, Zhejiang Province. He was traveling with his new Shanghai teammates for a pre-season away game before the official start of the Chinese Basketball Association playoffs.
Tseng was looking forward to meeting his Chinese Taipei teammate Wu Tai-hao on the court, though they would not be standing shoulder to shoulder for this match, with Wu now the star player for the Zhejiang Lions. Standing six feet five inches tall, Wu Tai-hao is a formidable center and power forward, and along with Tseng forms the bulwark of Chinese Taipei’s inside line. However, for now, these former high school teammates are bitter competitors.
Tseng’s decision to join the CBA was a simple one. “When I came to the mainland, the salary was for sure a very important reason,” he told NewsChina. He follows up with the caveat that the CBA is “one of the best basketball leagues in Asia.”
“It’s like going abroad for higher learning. A better environment helps one a lot,” Tseng said.
Since 1999, Taiwanese basketball players have become a common sight in the mainland league, with more making the move each year. So far, more than 15 Taiwanese players have joined the CBA. Of the 13 players of the Chinese Taipei team that came eighth at the 2011 Asian Basketball Championship, five have previously played or are now playing in the CBA.
According to the Taiwan media, the deal Tseng Wen-ting struck with Shanghai covers a yearly salary of 2 million yuan (US$315,000) and a three-year contract, about six to seven times the salary a Taiwanese basketball player can expect at home under Taiwan’s SBL (Super Basketball League) regulations, which are supervised by the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association (CTBA). The SBL, in order to prevent explosions in player salaries, has a firm rule that the monthly salary of a Taiwanese basketball player cannot exceed US$3,980.
Taiwanese players have long found ways around their limited salaries – according to senior Taiwanese basketball critic Chu Yen-shuo, most top players have several alternate sources of income. However, the CBA has no qualms about using a brown envelope to poach the island’s most promising players. “One year’s income [on the mainland] equals that of two to three years in Taiwan,” Chu Yen-shuo told NewsChina. “In addition, contracted income on the mainland is mostly after tax, whereas Taiwanese players pay 20 percent tax on their income at home.”
Before 1999, basketball was a good way for athletes to strike it rich in Taiwan. Many investors in the sport were real estate entrepreneurs who poured their money into the league. Early basketball stars like Wang Libin (mainland) and Chieng Chih-lung (Taiwan) had once earned a monthly salary of 400,000 to 500,000 New Taiwanese dollars (US$13,000 to 16,500), even higher than the annual income of today’s players. Yet, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis that struck in late 1997, which crippled the island’s real estate industry, many investors pulled out of the league leading to a shutdown in 1999 after only operating for five years. In 2003, the SBL was founded by seven teams, yet its operation under the jurisdiction of the CTBA has prevented the league from establishing itself as a market-oriented enterprise.
As a result of the more economical approach of the CTBA, matches in Taiwan are often staged in second-rate venues to save money. “If you go and watch a game, you’ll feel the whole thing is really shabby,” Chu Yen-shuo told our reporter. “All profits from ticket sales go to the CTBA. The teams will receive a share from the TV broadcasting fee, roughly NT$5 million (US$166,000) a year. However, to run a team costs about NT$16 million to 20 million (US$530,000 to 663,000). The balance is usually covered by investors who make the investment as a way to deduct tax or to boost the image of their companies. Few people would now go into Taiwanese basketball to make a profit.
“There are many gifted marketing professionals in Taiwan,” said Chu. “But none of them are working in basketball.”
Due to its market weakness, the SBL has remained low-key since its launch. Though basketball’s cultural influence in Taiwan is second only to the island’s national sport of baseball, basketball players’ salaries remain stagnant. By contrast, the CBA has exploded into the mainland’s fastest-growing sports league, attracting more and more top Taiwanese players who generally lack the ability to enter the NBA or the European leagues.
The CBA, of course, also welcomes Taiwanese players. The island is renowned for creating strong team players with good discipline, and there are no language barriers and few cultural barriers to Taiwanese players, unlike those faced by the Americans and Europeans currently playing in the CBA. Crucially, transfer fees are waived, and once a player is released from a contract he is free to join any team of his choice.
This has led to a severe talent drain from the SBL, with more and more Taiwanese basketballers playing in the CBA. “The best players are all now going overseas, which will definitely affect the SBL’s performance. The league and individual clubs need to find out how to shore up the declining enthusiasm of the fans,” said Chou Jung-san, chief coach of the Chinese Taipei team.
“On the plus side, the absence of the star players also provides an opportunity for emerging players. They should grab these opportunities,” he added.
Though quick to mingle with their new teammates, players from Taiwan still find it takes some time for them to totally adjust to the new environment. The mainland lacks many of the conveniences they are accustomed to in Taipei - Tseng Wen-ting complained to our reporter about the difficulties in getting a morning taxi in Shanghai, adding that his Taiwanese compatriots playing basketball on the mainland are also “struggling to get used to the weather and traffic.”
Also, top foreign players (including former NBA players) and equally good mainland players are making it increasingly tough for Taiwanese players to distinguish themselves in the CBA. Only a handful have decent score sheets, denting their professional reputations both on the mainland and in Taiwan.
“It’s normal for the stats to drop,” said Chou Jung-san, adding that mainland teams tend to gear their tactics toward the foreign players, meaning Taiwanese players need to adapt. “Stats are only a reference. What matters is doing what the coach expects of you on the court,” he added.
One good example of a Taiwanese player who has blossomed on the mainland is Lee Hsueh-lin who transferred to the Beijing Ducks from Taiwan’s top team Yulon Dinosaurs in September 2010, in the process evolving from top scorer into rearguard stalwart. Though he has only registered mediocre stats in scores and assists, his organization knits the Ducks together and has seen the team’s performance as a whole dramatically improve.
Taiwan is now having to rethink its administrative approach to its second-favorite sport, with its most promising players sometimes disappearing into the mainland right out of college. “Taiwan and its basketball teams need to figure out how they’re going to hold onto their best players,” said coach Chou Jung-san.
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Badeling Pass | Beijing
Sep 2011 | Submitted by Brian Snelson
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