Can Taiwan’s Hoop Dreams Become Reality?

Photo: Richard Chang

Basketball is one of the island’s best-loved sports, but unsustainable business models and training schedules have kept it from being as successful in Taiwan as baseball.

In April, the New York Times published an article by veteran sportswriter Marc Stein entitled “Can the N.B.A. Learn from Taiwan’s Basketball Bubble?” The story discussed how Taiwan’s Super Basketball League (SBL) season had proceeded largely as scheduled through the COVID-19 pandemic, except that the games had moved to much smaller venues and no fans were allowed inside. The absence of an excited audience made it difficult to get pumped up for games, some players for the SBL team featured in the article, the Taoyuan Pauian Archibald, told Stein.

What the article didn’t explicitly mention was that attendance at SBL games was already very low to begin with, to the point that sponsors had begun pulling out and the number of the teams in the league had dwindled to just five. “Even before COVID-19, pro basketball here was on life support,” says former NCAA and professional basketball player Richard Chang. “The televised games are nothing to be proud of, but when you go to the games themselves, there’s more staff there than spectators.”

It’s very discouraging to witness, says Chang, who hung up his basketball jersey a long time ago for a career in business and now serves as Costco’s Senior Vice President for Asia. He notes that the situation was different when he was playing on Taiwan’s national team and corporate (now SBL) league in the 1980s and 1990s. Back then, he says, the games would be so packed that many attendees would resort to buying huangniupiao, or scalped tickets.

Yet in terms of pure numbers of participants, basketball undoubtedly still tops the list in Taiwan. Even on the hottest, muggiest summer nights, one can find a pickup game to join pretty much anywhere in the city. Much of that popularity is due to the sheer simplicity of the game. All you need is a hoop, a court, and a ball.

And while attendance at SBL games may be unimpressive, stadiums in Taiwan still fill up – surprisingly – for high school basketball competitions.

The High School Basketball League (HBL) was formed by the Ministry of Education (MOE) in 1988, a year after the launch of the island’s first college-level organization, the University Basketball Association (UBA). The motivation for creating the HBL was to expand the pool of talented athletes in Taiwan through sports competitions and train high-potential basketball talent. The league consists of boys’ and girls’ divisions, which are further divided into first and second tiers. The first-tier boys’ division championship is the most-viewed student sports competition in Taiwan.

The HBL is so popular in part because attendance at the games is free of charge. Since the MOE is the organizer, providing access to the games is considered a public service. For some games at the Taipei Arena, as many as 10,000 to 12,000 seats are filled. And whatever might be lost in ticket sales is more than made up for with the sponsorship HBL has received from numerous multinational corporate brands, most notably Nike.

“Although the league was formed over 30 years ago, it didn’t really start getting more attention until about 12 or 13 years ago,” says Rachel Chen, chief operating officer of local film production company and talent agency Touch of Light Films. “This is mostly due to Nike’s very smart, strategic sponsorship. Every year, the company starts preparing for the tournament very early, backing each team financially and helping them come up with logos, visuals, and other aspects.”

Another central factor that has boosted the HBL’s popularity is the three-year, US$1 million deal the Chinese Taipei School Sport Federation – the HBL’s parent organization – inked with FOX Sports in 2015 to broadcast major games being played across the island. The play-by-play is accompanied by commentary from experts, including coaches and former HBL players.

The size and intensity of the HBL fan support inspired Chen of Touch of Light Films, who did not have a sports background, to work with director Chang Jung-chi to create a movie centered around the HBL. We Are Champions!, released in August last year, tells the story of two brothers who end up competing against each other in the HBL championship.

Although the plot of We Are Champions! centers on the relationship between the two main actors, the HBL is the crucial backdrop for the movie. Chen and Chang therefore strove to make the depiction of the basketball scenes as realistic and accurate as possible. To do this, they sought out young actors with at least some basketball experience, and Chang put them through six months of grueling training before filming started.

Preparing for and making the High School Basketball-themed movie We Are Champions! was challenging for both the actors and those involved in the film’s production. Photo: Touch of Light Films

The film’s production was a real challenge, says Chen, who noted that many of the scenes from the final championship games required expensive special effects and a lot of rehearsal time. “We had to be very meticulous with our editing,” she says. “The distance between the audience and the court is really close, so it would be obvious if the special effects were poorly executed.” She says that director Chang wanted viewers to feel as if they were sitting along the sideline, experiencing the game in person.

The game scenes were also painstakingly shot from multiple different angles, says Chia Fan, a basketball coach, commentator for FOX Sports, and former HBL player who served as the main advisor for the movie. Part of Chia’s job was to design around 40 different plays for the actors to practice until they could execute them flawlessly, adding to the sense of authenticity of the movie.

“The director had high standards, re-filming each shot until it was perfect,” says Chia, who also made his acting debut as one of the commentators in the film. “The actors worked hard, constantly being placed on defensive and offensive positions. We worked from 7 a.m. all the way until midnight some days – we basically had to live in the stadium for about a month.”

In the end, We Are Champions! was not as successful as Touch of Light had hoped, taking in around US$1 million in ticket sales – about one-third of the film’s budget. However, it received significant media attention and social media mentions from several public figures and celebrities. The buzz generated about the film domestically spoke volumes about Taiwan’s love of high school basketball.

Varsity blues

However much a success the HBL has been in terms of viewership and financial support, it has also come in for quite a bit of criticism over the years, especially regarding the total lack of any academic requirement. Student athletes can fail all their classes and still be allowed to play for the HBL.

“To say that grades are irrelevant would be wrong,” says Chia Fan, who previously played for and later coached one of the HBL’s premier teams, the Nanshan Panthers. “We all care about the students’ schoolwork and academic progress, but the pressure to win games is huge, and you can see this in sponsor Nike’s slogan that the HBL is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

This pressure to win places enormous strain on the players, Chia says, and their performance in school often suffers as a result.

In addition, since the HBL tournament schedule is incredibly intense, teams might play as many as seven games in a week in order to move on to the next round. To prepare for such a packed, fast-paced competition, players undergo extremely hard training, sometimes for up to eight hours a day for months. The frequent result is that the vast majority of teams play very few games in a given season, while the better teams over-train and over-perform, and their players quickly become mentally and physically burned out.

Among those thinking about ways to improve the situation is Cheng Ho, founder of Choxue, a youth-sports-focused startup based in Taipei. Working closely with local schools, Cheng and his team have launched their own Choxue League (CXL), as an alternative to the HBL.

Cheng’s inspiration for the CXL came from his own experience with sports as an adolescent. Suddenly transplanted to the U.S. state of Georgia at age 13 to live with his aunt and uncle after practically being orphaned in Taiwan, Cheng came to realize that sports at schools in the American south is everything. He caught on quickly and began getting involved in a range of varsity sports, most notably track and field and American football, which he excelled at so much that he was eventually offered a full athletic scholarship to Harvard.

After working briefly with the NFL in China after university, Cheng decided to bring his sports credibility back to his homeland, throwing his entire savings into getting Choxue up and running. By 2016, the company had received its first round of investment, with backers including Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai and former NBA superstar Jeremy Lin.

The most obvious difference between the two leagues is the CXL’s more rigorous academic criteria – students need to pass their classes to play, which Cheng says is a great motivating factor. However, the CXL’s seasons are longer – from October to March – similar to those of most high schools in the U.S.

Additionally, whereas HBL games are all held at the Taipei Arena, the CXL incorporates a home-away format, in which games take place at the schools themselves. Cheng argues that this approach is much more effective in fostering a sense of pride in each school’s team and can ultimately generate more revenue for the teams.

In addition to the league itself, Choxue also has a digital component – choxue.com – that lets players and teams track their progress over time. “It’s kind of like a LinkedIn for sports,” says Cheng, who notes that the ultimate goal of the website and app is to help teams make money through local sponsorships.

Moving up through the ranks

College basketball also has its fans in Taiwan, and like the HBL is broadcast on FOX Sports with color commentary. Part of the draw of the UBA is the growing number of foreign players on the teams.

One such player is Brendon Smart from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. Smart grew up playing and watching basketball on TV with his older brother Akeme, who went off to play in professional teams overseas while Brendon was still a teenager.

“I really wanted to follow in my brother’s footsteps,” Brendon told Taiwan Business TOPICS. So, when Akeme told him about a sports scholarship being offered by fellow Vincentian Craig Lee Sam, who had previously played Division II college basketball in Taiwan and was coaching there at the time, Brendon leapt at the chance. For the past four years, he has played center for the team at Chien Hsin University of Science and Technology in Taoyuan, while also working on a bachelor’s degree in foreign languages.

“It was difficult to get used to the style of playing here at first – lots of outside shooting, more fast-paced,” says Smart. He notes that back home there were maybe only half a dozen basketball courts on the whole island, and he was accustomed to playing three-on-three streetball style, rather than the more formal five-on-five full-court game of the UBA. He also needed a courtside translator when he first arrived but has since learned enough Chinese to communicate with his Taiwanese teammates and coaches without difficulty.

Once talented players graduate from university, they must decide whether to go on to play in Taiwan’s professional leagues or seek opportunities elsewhere. Richard Chang of Costco thinks that for many, the choice is pretty clear.

Richard Chang, in white, once played for Taiwan’s national team and professional league, but opted to transition to a corporate career early on. Photo: Richard Chang

“For a lot of kids and a lot of parents, it’s not desirable for their child to play in the SBL because it’s not sustainable for them relative to their career,” he says. “Unlike the NBA, where salaries are high and playing for even just five years puts players in a good financial position, the starting salary for SBL is anywhere from NT$40,000 to $60,000 a month. And if you spend five or 10 years in the SBL, your opportunity cost is very high because that’s five or 10 years you’re not in the workforce.”

Chang’s decision to retire early from basketball reflected his conviction that the sport was a means to an end and not the end itself. “While I tend to be a little pessimistic about my time with basketball, I’m still very bullish on athletics in that they develop qualities, like teamwork and leadership skills, that you probably can’t get from just the classroom,” he says. His Chinese-language book Coaching Yourself emphasizes that outlook, encouraging young Taiwanese to get involved in sports to reap the same benefits he did from his previous athletic career.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing U.S. sports leagues to shorten or postpone their 2020 seasons, the SBL is trying to figure out how to maintain the current attention it’s receiving from sports fans around the world. This May, it announced reforms to its regulations, seeking to make games more competitive and exciting to watch. The changes included allowing foreign UBA players with at least three years’ experience playing in Taiwan to participate in the league’s 18th draft.

Also, SBL teams may now each hire two Asian (non-Taiwanese) players and one other foreigner. However, these new rules were accompanied by restrictive height and salary caps. For example, the foreign player recruited from overseas cannot be taller than 6’7” and cannot be paid more than NT$360,000 per month – conditions that left some questioning whether the SBL was really ready to change.

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