Friday, December 01, 2000

A Sad Story: The Rise and Fall of Taiwanese Pro Ball

After an eighteen-month wait, Taiwanese fans are disappointed again. The CBA (Chinese Basketball Alliance) failed to stage a new season, which was supposed to open on November 18, and announced it will once again suspend all activities indefinitely on November 23.

It is definitely a shocking news for the fans and the media. The announcement also means that there will be no professional basketball action in Taiwan in the foreseeable future.

Looking back the short 4 1/2-year CBA history, maybe we will have a better idea why the CBA, once perceived as one of the strongest pro league in Asia, folds twice within a two-year span.


PART I : The Beginning and the Rise


Summer of 1993, midway thru my final year in college, four A-League team owners gathered for a meeting and talked about the idea of setting up a professional basketball league. Little did anyone know back then that after this simple meeting, Taiwanese basketball would never be the same.

Looking back, the Taiwanese basketball environment was not-- and never -- MATURED enough to stage a pro league. Attendance of A-League games kept dropping back then and fan interest toward basketball was relatively low. Pro baseball is still the No.1 sports in this island.

However, Hong-kuo Elephants, Yulon Dinos, Luckipar Panthers and Tera Mars(later changed its name to Kaohsiung Mars and BCC Mars because of ownership change) escaped from the A-League and formed the Chinese Basketball Alliance anyway. The league set up the rules in a short time and held the import player tryout with the help from some sports agencies.

After a series of exhibition games, the CBA's inaugural season was launched in November 1994, a couple months after I went into the two-year military service. At the time, NBA basketball was huge in Taiwan but clearly few people here, especially those who involved in the CBA, understood what PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL really is. For the league staff, the teams and the local players, everything was more like an on-the-job training.


Surprisingly, the CBA received relatively success in the first two years, although the competition level, the venue, the marketing skills of the league was still second-grade. And because of the success, the league expanded to six teams in just its second season, adding Hong-fu Rams and Chung-shin Tigers(later changed its name to Dacin Tigers).

Averaged attendence was more than 2000. Local corporations, especially those related to sports business, were more than willing to be the league sponsors. And the fans were excited for and curious of Taiwan's first pro basketball league. Local medias expanded their coverage for basketball. Suddenly, Taiwanese basketball's future looked brighter than ever.

The most important thing was, by playing NBA rules, allowing two imports playing at the same time and paying acceptable salaries, the league was able to attract many big-time imports like former Louisville standout Jerome Harmon. Therefore, local players' skills were dramatically improved after playing against better-skilled imports every day.

With the great reputation of paying imports, plus the never-ending nightlife and extensive fan support, imports loved playing here, even willing to take less salaries. Gradually, the CBA was viewed as one of the most powerful pro leagues in Asia. Local stars not only became every youngster's idol, they also became richer after their salaries skyrocketed. Highest monthly salary reached 350,000 NT dollars(about 11,000 USD), almost ten times higher than an average A-League player.

PART II : Chaos and Suspension


The relative success of the league did raise some eyebrows throughout the Asia, but not all things went as smooth and well as outsiders thought. In fact, there are chaos everywhere from the league office down to the teams and the players.

Management guidelines, like salary cap, draft system, player trading rule and free agency rules...etc, were not completely established in the early years of the CBA, because owners wanted to open the season as early as possible. And league office did not complete the guidelines afterwards, thus resulting numerous controvercies among the teams.

Also, teams have mixed feeling toward import players. They want to have the best imports but are reluctant to pay high-end salaries. They want to bring in the best imports to win the ball games, but they don't want imports EATING UP all those playing times of local players.

Star-studded teams like Hong-kuo and Yulon started investing more money on player salaries, game promotions and courtside activities. As a result, their budget climbed up. On the other hand, due to poor facilities and the differences between top-tier and second-tier teams, attendence figures started to nosedive. Reportedly, every team lost money. And the TV rating of broadcasted games was not looking good.

Meanwhile, local player salaries kept skyrocketing, since every team wanted to lock up its players because not too many amateur players were available. The CTBA, which is the highest governing body of Taiwanese amateur basketball, did not put in any effort to strengthen amateur basketball. And for a long period of time, Taiwanese National Team did not produce good results in international competitions.

We have to admit that several locals, like Cheng Chih-lung and Lo Shin-liang of Hong-kuo, Yen Hsin-shu of BCC Mars, established themselves as franchise players during the years. But too many locals did not improve their skills thru the constant competition against imports, averaging double-figure in scoring is almost like an impossible dream for them. For the most part, this is why the league produced only a handful of star players. Practically, no emerging youngsters brought the fans any excitement and fresh feeling during this period. As a whole, this league was like a dead pond.


However chaotic it may be, Hong-kuo and Mars brought the fans an epic and classic battle in 1998 CBA Finals. Mars took a commanding 3-1 lead after four games, but Hong-kuo refused to lose. They won the last three games all on small margins, completed the most unbelievable come-from-behind victory in CBA playoffs history and became the first team to THREE-PEAT.

Every game in the seven-game series was a sell-out. The dramatical results also made this tiny island hoop-crazy for two weeks. No ones knew that, all of a sudden, everything goes downward from this point.

Starting in late 1998, numerous Taiwanese corporation suffered financial crisis like companies in other Asian countries. Kuo-yang Group, which owned the Mars at the time, sold the team because of financial problems and threw the first BOMB of CBA collapse. After that, Hong-fu also had problems, although it did not sell the Rams.

League office did not do well on the TV broadcast extension negotiation. During the negotiation, the league and ETV, the primary bidder for the broadcasting right, had numerous conflicts and could not agree a final contract. It's not a secret that if the league end up with no TV money, it will collapse in a split of second.

That's exactly what happened. On March 14, midway through its fifth season, CBA announced it will suspend its action indefinitely. In fact, rumors had been said the league would folds starting from January.

PART III : Re-structure and Falling Down Again


CBA's suspension is a huge blow to all the fans and the insiders of the basketball circle. The league immediately pushed itself into a re-structuring mode and claimed it will re-open as soon as all the problems are resolved. They pretty much GUARANTEED the re-launch but set no timetable.

League office and teams joined forces and formed a RE-STRUCTURE COMMITTEE, which includes coaches, owners, general managers and league staff. The main task for the committee is to lay down the foundation - various managing rules and guidelines -- that was absent before the suspension.

The committee also looked for the help from the highest sports governing body NSC (National Sports Council). It hopes the NSC can be the peacemaker between the owners who have different opinions and helps bring the league a new arena in downtown Taipei area.

Actually, NSC did not want to be involved in the restructuring of the CBA, although then-NSC president Chao Li-yun did try to organize a ROUNDTABLE MEETING. In the meantime, Dacin Tigers refused to participate in the re-structure and decided to drop back to the semi-pro A-League. Dacin had always been the lowest-budget team, the dropout showed it did not want to spend extra money on professional basketball.

That leaves the CBA with only five teams. Chen Cheng-chun, owner of Hong-fu Rams and a national legislator himself, then took over as the president of both the re-structuring committee and the CBA. Chen decided to speed up the restructring process.

During the suspension, the CBA organized several corporation-sponsored tournaments to keep the players and fans busy. Plus, they want to check out the basketball CLIMATE and maintain fans' interest in local pro basketball. Among the tournaments are Mellennium Series, Windy City Festival, Sinchu Cup and Elite Four Tournament.

Finally, the good news came on June 18, 2000. The CBA announced it will re-launch the 2000-01 season on November 17(Later changed to November 18) with each team playing 40 games. Also, then-ruling party KMT decided to take over the Mars, which is the only team without an owner. League office released the details of Balance Draft, Salary Cap, regular season and exhibition game schedules in later months.

It seemed everything was going well and the league was on its way back to the glory. Insiders didn't think so, though. Some said, the biggest problem of the league is not the lack of fan support or a new arena, it's in the mindset of the team owners and the players. To be more procise, owners still don't realize they will lose money in the first few years anyway. And Local players still don't have a clue what PROFESSIONAL PLAYER means. Almost 90% of the local players failed to keep themselves in shape and improve their skills during the suspension.


Like the CBA owners and players, economic situation did not improve much during the suspension. Two weeks before the tip-off of the new season, Hong-kuo Group shocked everybody and announced it will dismiss the Elephants because of financial difficulties.

One day after Hong-kuo's announcement, Yulon also announced it will pull out of the CBA and re-join the A-League. Suddenly, the CBA is left with only three teams and again in danger of losing the new season. President Chen tried to talk the owners out of pulling teams out but failed.

Bad news keep coming. Luckipar Panthers made clear on November 22 that it, too, will not play in the new season. President Chen was forced to announced that the relauch of the CBA is suspended indefinitely. The CBA is officially dead again.

Ironically, the fall out of the CBA pleased the CTBA. CBA teams were left without a league to play in, they can only re-enter the amateur ranks if they want to keep playing and thus make this year's A-League an 18-team league, an all-time high number.

Powerful Chinese website SINA.COM decided to take over the players from Hong-kuo and use the team name of "" to register in the A-League. Yulon, Luckipar and Mars will make minor roster changes but enter the A-League with the original team name. On the other hand, Hong-fu Rams became history. Most of its players joined other teams like Da-hwa Construction or Dacin Tigers.



The league decided to keep the league office (maybe hiring only one or two employees to handle all the little things) and keep working toward re-open the season after the Board of Directors meeting, although the season is dead again.

Most players stay with their former teams and are preparing for the A-League Regular Season, which starts next January. Other players either transfer to other teams or being force to find a REAL job.

While local media lamenting for the CBA's failure, the CTBA is pretty excited aout the upcoming A-League season and keep telling everyone that it's better for Taiwanese basketball at this moment not having a pro league. The CTBA has been feeling bittersweet about professional basketball ever since the CBA surfaced, because they think the pro league STEALS players from them and making amateur basketball miserable.

As far as the future of Taiwanese professional basketball, in my opinion, the first thing we must have is making more corporations believe that investing on a basketball team is worthwhile. Since basketball is the No.1 sports in Taiwan, it shouldn't be too hard.

Secondly, all team owners have to understand what it takes to manage a pro team and the reality of pro basketball. Any pro team can not expect itself to come in and immediately make money in the first few years. Current team owners can't stand losing money even for a single season! I guess that's not a healthy mindset in terms of running a pro team.

No.3. The CTBA should finally do something good for Taiwanese basketball. They have to work hard to develope grassroots basketball in junior high and senior high schools, develop more quality coaches who really have the love of the game and have the positive perspective of the game, and develop more players. All in all, they have to increase the talent pools for Taiwanese basketball. Pro and amateur basketball will be benefited.

Some observers are saying that Taiwan is better suited for the semi-pro basketball, like what it is in Japan. Japan's JBL is organized by Japan Basketball Association and very similar to Taiwan's A-League. They also play a short season, but they have two divisions and spend more money on player salaries and team management.

Meanwhile, some are saying that Taiwan simply have not enough quality players to have a pro league. They claim six teams are too many for this tiny island, and a 4-team league is boring because of familiar matchups.

Where is the future of Taiwanese pro basketball? It seems the answer is still up in the air and no one knows for sure. Before anyone figure it all out, Taiwanese basketball fans have only two choices: turn on the TV and watch NBA games, or put up with 40-minute not-so-exciting A-League basketball.