Pro sports hold lots of lessons for business. Many business leaders will use the language of sports and stories from sports when they talk with employees and colleagues about hard work, competition, winning and losing outcomes and the like. Another parallel came up during my discussion last week with Chris Park, Major League Baseball's top executive for growth, strategy and international, for the story Sunday about business opportunities that are emerging for the Minnesota Twins after signing South Korean slugger Byung Ho Park. He invoked the old investing axiom, past performance is no guarantee of future results, when talking about the history of baseball's proliferation around the world.
Though credited in lore to a single inventor, Abner Doubleday, baseball actually evolved over many years in parks in big American cities around the time of the country's founding in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Its spread overseas is a 20th century phenomenon, but that did not happen in a linear fashion. In Asia, the farthest baseball has spread, it is popular in Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, but not in China and the rest of the continent. Geoolitics only goes so far in explaining the proliferation of the sport: the four countries where it is popular are American allies but only the Philippines was colonized by the U.S.
That means it's difficult for Park to draw up a strategy built around the idea that what worked in one country will work in another, as many businesses try to do when they expand overseas. "I don’t think from what we have seen that there are necessarily grand unifying theories that both explain retrospectively the sequence of our sport’s emergence as well as predictively tell us where it’s going to come next," Park said.
As with other businesses, China, the world’s most populous country, may eventually prove to be the ultimate frontier for pro baseball and other American sports. Six years ago, the Major League opened some training academies in China and, this year, the Baltimore Orioles signed a development contract with one of the first graduates, a player named Xu Guiyuan.
Park said that for now the MLB sees China chiefly as "a really interesting experiment to see whether, in a market that is so historically unfamiliar with our game, we can produce a professional quality recruitment organization and hopefully seed a real pipeline for players.”
Chinese baseball player Xu Guiyan wearing the Baltimore Orioles team jersey poses at the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall in July. The 19-year-old Xu became the first player from one of the MLB's three development centers in China to sign with a major league club. (AP Photo by Andy Wong)