In Japan, Baseball's Chance to Homer

The flagging sport's governing body can electrify fans by participating in a 16-nation World Classic. Too bad the group is holding back

By Brian Bremner

Another Japanese baseball season is now in full swing, but you wouldn't necessarily know from reading the local papers. They seem far more interested in the goings-on of Major League Baseball's Japanese ballplayers.

On any given day, you'll see stories about how slugger Hideki Matsui (aka Godzilla) will power the wildly uneven New York Yankees back into contention. Another favorite subject: Is this the year Seattle Mariners power hitter Ichiro Suzuki will break MLB records for full-season batting average -- .400 -- or for hits in consecutive games -- now at 56? Want to watch either the Yankees or the Mariners play live? Well, you often can via satellite TV across Japan.


  By comparison, baseball in Japan seems stuck in a rut. While attendance leaguewide has seen modest gains in recent years, a lot of smaller regional teams are struggling. For example, the Pacific League's Kintetsu Buffalos lost some $36 million last year.

The Tokyo Giants, which are owned by a media conglomerate whose properties include major newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun and the NTV television network, makes serious money. But most clubs in the 12-team league are losing yen by the truckload. On top of that, the talent exodus to the U.S. seems destined to continue, given the huge salary differences between MLB teams and their Japanese counterparts. Besides, right now younger sports fans are probably far more fixated on the Japanese national soccer team's quest for a qualifying slot in the 2006 World Cup competition.

That's why it's a little mystifying that Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the governing body of the game in Japan, seems to be balking at participating in a 16-nation World Baseball Classic tentatively set for next spring. The idea, which is being explored by MLB, the Korean Baseball League, and the International Baseball Federation, is to heighten baseball's global profile by letting national teams compete in a round of playoffs and championship games. Yet right now at least, the NPB is withholding support because of a dispute on how the proceeds of the promotional rights for the World Classic will be divvied up.


  One idea is to deposit all money sold for TV and promotional rights into a single pot and then divide the spoils evenly among baseball federations. Japan, with by far the most developed league in Asia, wants a different setup -- one that would reflect Japanese baseball's dominance in Asia and give the league a larger share.

The Japanese side may have a point, but such thinking isn't good for its image -- or the game. The World Classic would be a bit of a farce if Japan's best players -- whether they play for the NPB or MLB teams -- weren't a part of it. Better to go forward with the tournament in 2006 and gain the marketing payoff for Japanese baseball. The money issue could always be revisited. NPB representatives couldn't be reached for comment for this article.

If it doesn't participate in the World Classic, the NPB could be turning down a chance to boost baseball domestically -- something that's sorely needed. Last September, the Nippon Professional Baseball Players Assn. went on work stoppage, albeit a short one, for the first time in the league's 70-year history. Indeed, such action is just about unheard of in consensus-loving Japan.


  The reason for the highly unusual action? There was serious talk of team mergers and possibly the creation of a single league, with only 8 or at most 10 teams. Currently there are two leagues, with a total of 12 teams. Reducing the number of teams would mean fewer players and would send a negative message about the game.

The best way to avoid that fate, of course, is to return the league to financial health. Some of the problems -- and solutions -- are pretty obvious. The league doesn't have an integrated system of TV rights and revenue-sharing, which would help teams in smaller markets.

Teams are generally owned by Japanese corporations that treat their ballclubs as marketing entities for their products. Frankly, I think there should be a law against a Japanese sausage company fielding a team called the Nippon Ham Fighters. And for the most part, the corporations have failed to invest in their franchises' future or come up with innovative marketing strategies, especially during the last decade of economic stagnation in Japan.


  That's finally starting to change with the arrival of new owners, including local Net moguls Masayoshi Son, founder and CEO of Softbank, and Hiroshi Mikitani, who runs the popular Rakuten e-retailing sites. To reach younger fans, Softbank is Netcasting games of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks to subscribers of its popular Yahoo! (YHOO ) BB broadband service.

Nothing would help as much, though, as Japan fielding a highly competitive national team in the 2006 World Classic series. A team of Ichiro, Godzilla, and the NPB's finest would have a decent shot of pulling off the mother of all upsets against the U.S.

Memo to Japanese baseball owners: There's nothing like raw patriotism to electrify a flagging sport and fill the stands. Ignore at your own peril -- and that of the game.

Bremner is Asia Regional Editor for BusinessWeek

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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