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May 29, 2017

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Illegal betting turns local fans off

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- Chung Yi-min would go to a baseball game almost every month and watch many more on television until four or five years ago, when the 36-year-old fan started getting fed up with Taiwan's most popular sport.

"If they don't catch balls I get suspicious because these are professional players," said Chung, who works as an event planner and has watched baseball since childhood. "Everyone will think that the game result isn't the actual result."

Chung now prefers televised U.S. Major League Baseball (MLB) to local games because of illegal betting, which has cost the island's 20-year-old league a chunk of its fan base, taking income away from the sport's development and lowering the national team's odds of international championships.

Taiwan's Criminal Investigation Bureau logged 102 illegal baseball betting cases, involving 222 people, last year and have tapped 20 cases covering 32 people so far this year.

Bets may go up to a few thousand Taiwan dollars, justice ministry spokesman Luo Chi-wang said, adding that punters could keep their names secret from betting ring operators.

The Taiwan cabinet has said it will take a swing at betting this year, while celebrities and the president have attended games to stimulate audience interest.

"Local prosecutors will keep looking into this matter," said Luo. "Of course there's a mafia connection but we haven't deeply analysed it. We're not saying it still exists or whether it has changed."

Taiwan, relatively new to baseball, faces the same growing pains that shook U.S. major league play almost a century ago, hatching the film Eight Men Out. The movie plot follows Chicago White Sox players who were suspected of intentionally losing the 1919 World Series after accepting bet money.

Taiwan's four professional teams have lost 45 percent of their stadium attendance over the past five years, cutting attendance to about 573,000 per year, league statistics show.

Television viewership had sunk by more than half over the same period largely due to public suspicions about betting, a team president said.

Taiwan went out early from the World Baseball Classic in March and won only two of seven games at the 2008 Olympics.

"If there's no one watching, how can you develop a team?" said Richard Lin, secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Baseball Association, which forms clubs for international play.

A decline in baseball fans reduces box office income, drying up training funds and pressuring Taiwan companies to consider dropping team sponsorships, people in the field say.

The specter of betting and threats against players also discourage students from taking up the sport in school, they add.

"If no one watches, that will affect the images of companies that sponsor teams and they will question whether they want to continue the sponsorships," said Jason Lin, president of the Uni Lions team. "And parents won't send their children to play ball."

A players' association said in March that up to 100 members would sign over 10 percent of their salaries to a local bank for their retirement. If a player was convicted of intentional poor play, the bank would instead donate the money to baseball development.

"False play has been such a problem in the past, so we need to increase self-discipline," said Lions pitcher Pan Wei-lun, adding that he had never been approached by betting rings.

Most players were in fair territory but "a few" still played poorly due to mafia threats or the money received for cooperating with bettors, league commissioner Chao Shou-po said.

"Let's not make the wrong friends or go to the wrong places," Chao told players at a ceremony with the bank.

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