Sports Perspectives in the Far East

I just returned from a cruise that encompassed ports of call in Japan, South Korea, and mainland China. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of deal. I don't have the wealth to do this sort of thing regularly.

It was, briefly, awesome. But I went into the excursion curious about two things: a) what sort of sporting culture would I find in these countries? b) How well would I be able to keep up with the American sports I'd be missing?

I got answers to both those questions, and this column will expound on those answers. Keep in mind, however, that my experiences were anecdotal and very limited. I can't speak intelligently to these answers as an authoritative whole, just the sliver of the two weeks and the few ports of call I experienced.

That said, here's what I observed:

It appears that Americans wear their sports passions on their sleeve, in a literal sense, much more than you see in Asia. In comparison to the United States, I saw very, very few hats, shirts, or jackets for sports teams. The few I did see were for American teams.

Chiefly, that meant the New York Yankees. I did not get the impression, however, that the Far East is chock-full of Yankees fans. Instead, the interlocking NY seemed to be more of a fashion statement than a sport allegiance. You would see it frequently on the shirts of young women who were otherwise dressed more fashion-forward and garishly than, say, a woman in a Yankees shirt and jeans on her way to do laundry in Queens.

I also observed that the Chinese really seem to be nuts about basketball. So help me, there's a even a basketball court in The Forbidden City. Full courts were present at every school I observed, as well as artificial-turf mini soccer fields. The pitch of these school fields always seemed to be artificial turf, which puzzled me, especially when surrounded by large patches of grass.

What I did not see, once again, was a lot of NBA gear worn by the populace (or CBA gear for that matter). I wondered how much of that was a simple cultural difference (again, I saw little in the way of sports clothing in Korea and Japan either) and how much might have had to do with the Chinese government recently butting heads with Adam Silver.

Another thing I'm left wondering: with their love of basketball readily apparent, and with their economic superpower status, why does China languish in the upper 20s/lower 30s in FIBA rankings?

Keeping up with American sports was another matter. The first difficulty is that you are essentially in the complete obverse in terms of time zone: when it's 3 PM in New York, it's 3 AM in Shanghai. This means, in terms of watching games, you have to either get up early to watch American prime time games, stay up very late for noon or 1 PM kickoffs, and kibosh the rest — or pull an all-nighter.

Even that assumes a level of connectivity that's not necessarily in the offing. The cruise I was on had only one sports channel available: ESPN. But it wasn't American ESPN, but an international version. I couldn't find any web-based TV listings for it anywhere, but over the course of two weeks, I began to slowly understand the channel.

ESPN International, at least on my cruise ship, was in fact ESPN Australia. As you can see from those listings, it deals primarily in U.S. sports. The listings on the linked website tracked with what we got on the ship, with one exception: when ESPN Australia did show something Australian on their schedule (namely, the NBL), we would not get that — instead we would get, say, a "30 For 30" episode, or a UFC talk show.

Things were not much better onshore. In China, ESPN is blocked. So is Google, leaving me unsure of how to search for things. The situation was a little better in Korea and Japan, but you still would need to find wifi. Additionally, on my ship (plane, too), the Internet was slow as molasses, way too slow to watch any streaming sports. This is understandable, especially on the ship, as they need to use satellite Internet and there are potentially hundreds of guests trying to get online. I know that some planes now have high-speed, streaming-worthy Internet, but my flights were not among them.

So all in all, it was pretty hard to keep up with U.S. sports, let alone watch them. Of course, this is the smallest complaint in the world, given that I got to experience something far greater, more meaningful, and ultimately more soul-satisfying than a day of wall-to-wall college football, as much as I enjoy that.

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