Is the trend really inevitable? I don't know. And I hope it's not…
Taiwan basketball team's China bid sparks 'brawn drain' fear
by Amber Wang – Sun Nov 21, 1:36 am ET
TAIPEI (AFP) – A leading Taiwanese basketball team's bid to join China's professional league has intensified concerns on the island that it is suffering a "brawn drain" to its giant neighbour.
The Taiwan Beer side, championship winners in 2006-7 and 2007-8, recently announced that it wants to play in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) league, adding to an emerging exodus of players heading for the mainland.
"We cannot stop players from making the most of their limited athletic lives but rather than losing one after another to Chinese teams, our team could join the CBA," said head coach Richard Yan.
The team, named after the signature product of its main sponsor, Taiwan Tobacco and Liquor Corp., would attract more backers and offer better deals to players once in the CBA, he said.
The plan raised a few eyebrows, with basketball authorities saying they opposed the team moving its big shots to China while leaving junior players in Taiwan's Super Basketball League (SBL).
"Of course we hope top players stay in Taiwan... We don't want the SBL to become a sideshow to the CBA," said Huang Chao-her, secretary-general of the Chinese Taipei Basketball Association.
While the association does not bar individual players from moving to China, it would be difficult for the Taiwan Beer team to get the green light because it has a state-funded sponsor, Huang said.
"Such a move would require the approval of various government agencies in charge of sports, labour, finance and China affairs. It is a very complicated matter," said Huang.
Several top coaches reportedly backed Taiwan Beer, saying it is inevitable for local teams to tap into China's vast market in the wake of dwindling box office income and funding.
For years Taiwan's top athletes have gone to powerhouses such as the United States and Japan in the hope of taking their careers to the next level, but increasing they are setting their sights on China.
"The trend of going to China is unstoppable," said Chu Yen-shuo, a Beijing-based Taiwanese sport critic and former chief editor of Hoop Taiwan magazine.
"Just like many European players joined the NBA, it's only natural that people want to move where there is more money," he said, adding top Chinese players can earn up to five times more than their Taiwanese peers.
Lin Chih-chieh, a former star forward of Taiwan Beer, was among the players and coaches who jumped on the bandwagon when he joined the Guangsha Lions in eastern Zhejiang province last year.
"China's environment is more competitive. There are more teams and I can vie with top Chinese and foreign players," Lin told AFP in a telephone interview.
"It's a great opportunity to improve myself and boost my career. At my age it's now or never for me to take on the challenge," said the 28-year-old.
Basketball -- both America's NBA and the homegrown game -- is wildly popular in China, with hundreds of millions of Chinese regularly watching NBA matches on television.
Dozens of US players are playing in China's professional leagues, with the highest-profile addition being the former NBA All Star Stephon Marbury, who joined the Shanxi Brave Dragons this year.
Lin warned that Taiwanese players need to brace themselves for a major challenge if they want to play in the stressful and physically demanding Chinese league.
Huang, of Taiwan's basketball association, cited the case of Sina Lions as a warning about the dangers of wishful thinking about China.
The first Taiwanese team to join the CBA quit in 2003 after only two years, blaming adjustment problems, he said.
China is also wooing the island's top talents in other fields such as baseball and billiards, as a recent improvement in ties between two sides spills over into sports.
But Beijing hit a nerve when it reportedly went after the island's sport icon, golf queen Yani Tseng, with a five-million-US-dollar annual sponsorship deal. The world's number two golfer has said she will only play for Taiwan.
The more alarming development for local fans is perhaps in baseball, where Taiwanese coaches have been credited with having played an important part in China's rise in the sport.
Since splitting from China six decades ago, Taiwan has lost to its giant rival in nearly every sporting arena, but had prided itself over its prowess in baseball.
That confidence has been shattered, with the Taiwanese squad suffering humiliating defeats to China in two international matches since 2008, at a time when the island's favourite sport was hit by game-rigging scandals.
It is unclear how many Taiwanese are currently coaching in China but local media reported this year that Chinese teams were planning to recruit at least 20 new coaches from the island.
Taiwan's pro-baseball league reportedly also intends to establish a new team in China, which will consist of players from both sides and could travel to Taiwan to play.
The league's officials were not immediately available for comment.