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Robert Whiting

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Baseball in Japan: Not All Cheers

by Robert Whiting (Mar 27, 2008)

The Americans swept into Japan and swept out. Two capacity games on two consecutive nights (44,628 on Tuesday and 44,735 on Wednesday) thrilled the baseball-mad locals as the Boston Red Sox and the Oakland A's split their season openers in Tokyo, the third time Major League Baseball (MLB), the U.S. sports association, has staged such an event in the last eight years. When the second game (which the A's took 5-1) was over at 9:51 p.m., the two teams, barely recovered from jet lag from the trip over, hopped a bus for nearby Haneda International Airport and a pair of all-night 11-hour flights across the Pacific.

While Japanese fans cheered the lightning series, the country's baseball organization, the Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB) grumbled. Its best players are migrating to the States. American games are cutting into the Japanese pastime's TV ratings. And now this latest spit in its eye just as NPB opening week commenced. Complained Yomiuri Giants pitching star Koji Uehara, "We're just starting our season. So why does the MLB have to come to play here. There's nothing to be gained from this." Added a Japanese professional baseball official, who wished to remain anonymous, "Every time the MLB holds one of their openers in Japan, sales of our opening week tickets go down.... We see more and more empty seats. It's not necessary for the big leaguers to come here."

MLB Asia's personable head Jim Small is aware of the sensitivity. Says Small, "We're aware of our position here. We know we are guests. We don't want to do anything to offend our hosts. We just want to solidify our base in Japan with fan clubs and small promotions." But the Bosox and A's visit was anything but small. It featured appearances by two of Japan's chief exports: Boston starter Daisuke ("Dice-K") Matsuzaka and his teammate, reliever Hideki Okajima. Furthermore, MLB is in the middle of a six-year $275 million TV contract with Japan's largest advertising firm, Dentsu. Japan's monolithic broadcaster NHK meanwhile has just has announced plans to continue its heavy coverage of American baseball by airing some 270 MLB contests where Japanese stars are playing. That is more than twice as many NPB games on NHK's schedule. Most of these are live transmissions from the U.S., broadcast in the morning on NHK's burgeoning satellite network, reaching 13 million households. Despite the inconvenient schedule, Japanese have tuned-in in significant numbers.

TV ratings for the Tokyo Giants, in particular, have fallen several percentage points since live MLB casts became a regular morning affair in Japan (the Giants' biggest star, Hideki Matsui, defected to the New York Yankees in 2003). But Japanese baseball is far from dead. Seasonal attendance has actually increased in the past three years (by 5%), thanks to the establishment of interleague play. The NPB has also managed to hold on to a core fan base (though some would argue that it is the core fans who have stuck by the NPB). In 2007, the Japan Series drew over twice the nationwide TV audience of the World Series telecast in Japan (despite Dice-K's presence in Game 3). Ratings for NPB games in the evening are generally higher than MLB games in the a.m. One of the few exceptions was the first time Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Matsuzaka squared off in an MLB game last April, a contest telecast from 8:30 a.m. in the morning and which drew a rating of 13.3% of the TV audience.

The NPB's problem is revenue and an inefficient business model - and gripes that the Americans aren't competing on a level playing field. For one, the Japanese teams have not been run as profit-making entities; instead they traditionally operate as advertising vehicles for parent companies. The NPB's annual revenue is estimated to be only slightly over $1 billion, one sixth of what the U.S. draws. The salary gap between what the best players make in each country is equally large. The NPB has no integrated system of selling media or merchandising rights.

At the same time, NPB teams lack what might be called the "trade advantages" of their North American counterparts, namely, stadium subsidies, salary depreciation allowances and the anti-trust exemption which helps free up millions upon millions of dollars for MLB teams to spend on raiding Japan's top stars. Most MLB teams use stadiums for little or nothing, having strenuously convinced the cities they play in to build new facilities for them. By contrast The Tokyo Giants pay $250,000 a game to use the Tokyo Dome, while the Softbank Hawks pay $40 million dollars a year to use a similar facility in Fukuoka. Says one longtime observer of the situation, "The NPB should file a grievance with the WTO [the World Trade Organization]."

For the Japanese athlete, going to the MLB, once regarded as a traitorous act, has become the thing to do, thanks to the exploits of Ichiro, Matsui and Dice-K. Observers estimate that conservatively there are at least three or four dozen more players good enough to make the jump. And most of them are ready to go. They are attracted to the higher pay and prestige of the major leagues and eager to be free of the rigid Japanese style discipline and the excessive practice of the Japanese system. As expatriate American pitcher Jeremy Powell, who plays for the Softbank Hawks, puts it, "These guys can't wait to get to the States."

And so what's next for the American invaders? Might the MLB be contemplating a Japan division to field teams against its National League and American League in the U.S.? The rumors to that effect exist because the Yomiuri Shimbun, the huge newspaper that also owns its own baseball team, was a major sponsor of the Boston-Oakland series and was responsible for the timing of the games to coincide with the local leagues' opening week - which the NPB found so obnoxious. Could Japan be further drawn into the American baseball empire? Well, maybe not. Says Masaki Nagino, planning director of the NPB's Central League: "Not just yet, if you consider the logistics. It still takes 11 hours to fly across the Pacific and as long as that holds, that's our protection."

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