Commentary: Japanese Baseball: Old And Slow

The league is being run like a lumbering keiretsu -- and fans are fleeing

As Japan's baseball season enters its final month, the Chunichi Dragons and the Daiei Hawks are fighting to stay atop their respective leagues. Tsuyoshi Wada just pitched a thrilling one-hitter for the Hawks, while slugger Alex Ochoa is hitting them out of the park for the Dragons. But even as the season finale Nippon Series approaches, the Japanese are distracted by a different struggle. Game attendance is falling, TV audiences are shrinking, and players, team owners, and fans can't agree on how to fix the sport. Now the players are threatening to strike if the owners can't come up with an acceptable plan. "I'm worried about baseball's future," said Takefumi Sato, a 28-year-old fan, before a Sept. 12 matchup between the Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows at the 55,000-seat Tokyo Dome.

Simply put, Japanese pro ball suffers the same woes as the rest of the Japanese economy. The owners are like the keiretsu that once lorded over the business landscape: They have grown too cozy with one another to operate efficiently. The players resemble Japan's coddled workers, accustomed to lifetime employment as comfortable as it is unchallenging. And the teams have gotten fat from feeding at the corporate cash trough without giving fans what they want: exciting baseball. "The 'who cares if it's not entertaining' attitude is very strong," says Jim Allen, a baseball writer for the Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

Just as carmakers and electronics houses have had to learn to compete in a global marketplace, Japan's baseball teams face new competition from abroad. Although Japanese players are tied to their teams for far longer than under the American free-agent system, Japan's top sluggers and pitchers can now jump to U.S. teams and earn 10 times their Japanese salaries. And fans can watch J-League soccer and U.S Major League Baseball. "The Major Leagues have higher quality play, so for consumers, it's natural," says Katsuhiro Miyamoto, a Hanshin Tigers fan and professor at Osaka College of Economics.

As in the U.S., there are huge disparities in the teams' fortunes. The Pacific League's struggling Kintetsu Buffaloes reported a loss of $36 million last year. Attendance for the lowly Hiroshima Toyo Carp has averaged just 14,804 per game this year. And the Yomiuri Giants' popularity means that teams lucky enough to share the Central League with them get the lion's share of TV income, leaving Pacific Leaguers out in the cold.

There may be a way for baseball to end its losing streak, but it isn't the one the owners have proposed. The catalyst for the strike threat was a restructuring plan put forth by Nippon Professional Baseball, the game's ruling body. NPB wants to replace the current six-team Central and Pacific leagues with a single league of 10 teams. The owners say this would create a more equitable distribution of TV money, as the Giants would play all nine other teams. Having fewer teams would also help cut costs.

Players and fans, though, say more interleague games could achieve the same goals. And instead of cutting teams, they say, baseball should heighten the rivalries that keep fans coming back year after year. One proposal by Yukiko Fukagawa, a professor at the University of Tokyo: Create an Asian Baseball League where top teams from Taiwan, China, Korea, and Japan could face off. And the old men who run baseball should follow the lead of Japanese companies that are breaking down mandatory age-based promotion and making way for new blood. Example: In August the owners dismissed out of hand an offer by 31-year-old Internet entrepreneur Takafumi Horie to buy the Buffaloes, one of the teams slated for elimination. "We can't let some unknown person in," Tsuneo Watanabe, the 78-year-old chairman of the Yomiuri Giants, told reporters. Many fans and players, though, feel Horie is just the sort of owner baseball needs to become a hit again. Japan Inc. has started to change. It's time Japanese baseball did, too.

By Ian Rowley

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