Update: On Oct. 20, the Chinese Basketball Association announced that Bayi is withdrawing its teams from both the men’s and women’s professional leagues.
For years, the professional basketball team of the Chinese army has had difficulty competing with its increasingly commercialized opponents. In their first game of the season this weekend, the team suffered an especially lopsided defeat — not because they played poorly, but because they didn’t play at all.
When the Beijing Ducks took the court Sunday afternoon, their opponents, the Bayi Rockets, were nowhere in sight, adding fuel to unconfirmed reports that the official team of the People’s Liberation Army, a former basketball powerhouse, intends to withdraw from the Chinese Basketball Association.
Fifteen minutes after the scheduled tipoff time, referees declared the Beijing Ducks the winner in a 20-0 forfeit.
Chris Xie, a Chinese sports journalist, told Sixth Tone that although Bayi reportedly trained together over the summer, when the league registration deadline of Sept. 15 arrived, no Bayi players had signed up: The team simply said its registration would be postponed until a later time.
“This left the CBA in a pickle,” Xie said. “When the league released the new season schedule on Oct. 10, the Bayi games were all ‘to be announced.’”
Bayi — or Aug. 1, referring to the day the People’s Liberation Army was founded in 1927 — was a perennial title contender in the decade after the CBA launched in 1995, reaching the finals nine times. One of Bayi’s top stars, 2.13-meter center Wang Zhizhi, had a five-year career in the NBA before taking over as the team’s current head coach.
But Bayi has increasingly been missing out on the best players, and its results have slipped accordingly: Last season, the team finished at the very bottom of the league with a 6-40 record.
According to Xie, in the early days of the CBA — when having a military or government job was an “iron rice bowl” guaranteeing some degree of prosperity — Bayi players’ salaries were on par with those of other teams. Now that soldiers’ salaries are comparatively more modest, however, Bayi can’t attract top talent the way big-market teams in Guangzhou, Beijing, and Shanghai can.
“The standard salary for most Chinese players might be 1 million or 2 million yuan ($150,000 or $300,000) per year,” Xie said. “But with Bayi, the players might only get 100,000 yuan or 200,000 yuan.”
As the army’s team, Bayi has also never signed foreign players, some of whom have come over from the NBA and dominated the Chinese league while making millions in the twilights of their careers. In August 2019, former NBA wing Lance Stephenson became the highest-paid foreign player in the history of the CBA, signing a one-year, $4 million offer from the Liaoning Flying Leopards.
Yet another possible reason for the PLA’s withdrawal from sports more broadly — the Bayi volleyball team also removed itself from competition this month — could have to do with China reducing its army, Xie said, while building up its navy, air force, and new strategic units in recent years.
After the last CBA season took an extended break during the Lunar New Year because of the coronavirus outbreak, games were ultimately resumed in mid-June, hosted in fanless, coronavirus-free “bubble” settings in the cities of Qingdao and Dongguan, in China’s east and north respectively. For the current, nascent season, games are returning to their regular stadiums, though fans are still absent. One of the league’s teams, it seems, might be too.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: Staff remove Bayi Rockets signage at an indoor arena in Zhuji, Zhejiang province, Oct. 18, 2020. People Visual)