Giant on the move
China’s infertile ground for (some) Western sports
Soccer is in a tight spot in China — literally. Huge crowds roar for Manchester United but the national team is a laughing stock at 108th in FIFA world rankings. Poor coaching, lack of grassroots development, even corruption and violence are variously cited as reasons for the sport’s demise. But the real reason may be more basic: the fact of physical space, or the lack thereof, in China.
If geography is a determinant of economic development, then it is fair to extrapolate that urban geography underpins the development of sports. And here’s the rub for soccer, not to mention American football and baseball. With few parks, small concrete schoolyards and a dearth of quiet streets, urban China offers little of the space needed for the sprawling play that defines those sports. Soccer has deep roots in China, but playing space has been squeezed as cities sprawl and swallow land in big gulps.
The NBA’s huge popularity in China has left other sports leagues salivating. They, too, dream of their own Yao Ming bringing forth TV audiences in the tens of millions and merchandising opportunities galore. But basketball can thank China’s spatial constraints more than its own marketing wizardry for such success. Dozens of nets crammed into schoolyards make the sport accessible to a huge number of young enthusiasts. The ease with which basketball has been woven into China’s urban fabric has a precedent in the explosion of Chinese table tennis in the 1950s. Both are simple enough games that can be played in tight spaces.
Curiously, the physical limitations of the crowded country augur well for one sport that uses more space than almost any other: golf. Unlike baseball, football and soccer, golf does not need a critical mass of ardent supporters to take off. Golf, in fact, can thrive in conditions of scarcity, when a small number of high-priced courses consolidate its position as an elite pastime. The lack of space in China makes it an expensive sport, out of reach for the great unwashed and just the ticket for the country’s nouveau riche.
Photo Credit: Local fans of Manchester United hold signs and posters as they look into the hotel where the players stayed in on July 25, 2009 ahead of a friendly match against Hangzhou Greentown. REUTERS/Nir Elias