Could China see a sports lockout?

The National Hockey League seems to have resolved its lockout – finally – but it will likely find that few people in North America care, let alone further afield. It left me wondering, though, whether a similar lockout could happen in China, or anywhere in Asia.

On the surface, a lockout of any league seems such an asinine proposition: the bottom line is that if there are no games, then there’s no revenue, and that’s bad for everyone (though you could argue that for clubs who lose money, it stops the rot for a time).

And the whole thing causes so much ill will among fans and media, not to mention all those who depend on the sport for their livelihood, such as arena workers and local restaurants, that it sets the sport back years.

It’s hard to feel sorry for either the billionaire owners or the millionaire players, and that’s why we’re still decades away from a lockout in this part of the world: quite apart from the difference in league structures here (for example, the lack of empowered league unions), there simply isn’t the money – and resulting egos – in Asian leagues that inevitably spark the lockouts in the first place.

The one exception may be in Japan. The richest sports league in Asia from a player perspective is probably Nippon Professional Baseball, the top pro baseball league in Japan. But as soon as a player gets paid well into seven figures, more often than not the MLB scouts will be buzzing around, looking to take him to the US for even more money.

The league had a short-lived strike in 2004 over the proposed merger of two clubs. More recently, top Japanese players threatened to boycott next year’s World Baseball Classic over their share of the revenues. But even so, that threat was averted months in advance of the tournament – a far cry from the NHL, which has just seen the third major lockout of commissioner Gary Bettman’s reign.

The good news is Chinese players won’t be walking out on their leagues anytime soon. Workplace strikes in China appear to be have been limited to a few foreign-owned companies in recent years, but Chinese sports leagues are much closer to the state-owned enterprise model.

At the moment, it’s far more likely that the leagues get shut down due to administrative reasons (corruption springs to mind) than because the players or owners decide they are no longer happy with the current arrangements. But that’s a worry for another day…

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