Japundit Series on Japan’s Baseball Revolution

Japundit contributor Ampontan has a wonderfully informative series about Japan’s baseball revolution from below that erupted last year. Of course, the baseball revolution reflects changes in the larger society as well. I’ll excerpt pieces from each of Ampontan’s installments. Even if you’re not that interested in Japanese baseball, the whole story illustrates how much Japanese society has been changing during the economic doldrums.

No Joy in Mudville

Last year at this time, it seemed as if Japanese baseball was teetering on the edge of a precipice, doomed to collapse in a heap of splendid splinters. Reaching the tipping point would have resulted in a plunge in popularity and prestige, relegating the sport to irrelevance as its best players fled to the United States, taking fan interest with them. Instead, a mass movement by the fans and a player strike enthusiastically supported by the same fans saved Japanese baseball from itself and even put it in a position where it can thrive in the future.

The Old World Teeters

Confronted by declining attendance caused by factors that included a poor economy, competition from a professional soccer league, and the flight of its top stars to the United States, the old guard of Japanese baseball, led by Yomiuri owner Tsuneo Watanabe (photo with cigar), came up with some self-serving solutions. They decided to merge the two Kansai area teams in the Pacific League with poor fan support, push for the merger of two other Pacific League teams, and convert Japanese baseball to a single 10-team league….

In the Japan of just 10 years ago, this plan probably would have gone through. But the old guard had not foreseen what would happen next: no one else liked the plan–not the fans and not the players–and this time they were prepared to do something about it….

The [players’] union handled their opposition to the merger brilliantly. Not only did they back the fans’ movement, winning their support and sympathy, but they appeared calm and rational in contrast to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), Japanese baseball’s ruling body. The union submitted a list of demands that baseball officials rejected. These included postponing the merger, forming a special committee to discuss merger issues, and allowing Kintetsu to sell naming rights, which the league also had dismissed without seeming to give the idea serious consideration….

That’s when Yomiuri owner Watanabe made his second mistake, and perhaps the biggest mistake of his career. Asked what he thought about the players’ opposition to the merger, he sneered, “Taka ga senshu.” (They’re nothing more than players, after all.) Watanable couldn’t possibly have chosen three more ill-advised words. The condescension oozing from this comment not only summed up the attitude of the owners toward their employees, the players, but encapsulated their belief that sole authority for the course of Japanese baseball resided with them, regardless of how it affected their employees and on-field performers, and the consumers, or the fans. In fact, it symbolized perfectly the attitude of the power structure in the old Japan.

Strike One

The Japanese players’ union felt so strongly, they threatened to hold a baseball strike, which had never happened in Japan before. They had collected 1.2 million signatures from Japanese baseball fans to prevent the elimination of one team, but were given the cold shoulder by Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the organization governing the sport….

The owners seemed intent on joining hands and walking off the cliff together. They held a meeting two days after the players voted to go on strike and formally approved the Kintetsu-Orix merger. Perhaps they thought they were calling the players’ bluff, but if so they badly misread the situation. The vote was 11-0 in favor of contraction, with the abstention of the Hiroshima Carp [my perennial underdog, old-hometown, Central League favorites]. The Hiroshima team thought it stood to lose too much fan support because of local opposition to the owners’ plan to eliminate one team….

The other Pacific League teams wanted the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks [my former Pacific League favorites], a successful and popular team with financially struggling owners, to merge with the Chiba Lotte Marines, but Daiei insisted they wanted to retain ownership of the Hawks and to keep it a separate entity.

The Dust Settles

After more than three months of preliminaries, charges, countercharges, threats of a strike, negotiations, and unnecessary turmoil caused by the owner intransigence, the weekend strike by the players caused the owners to rapidly focus on the problem. It didn’t take them long to figure out that they held a losing hand no matter how they tried to play it.

Thus, only a day or two into the negotiations following the strike, the owners quickly caved in to the players’ demands and agreed to allow a new team to be established to take the place of the one being eliminated through the Kintetsu and Orix merger….

The Sendai fans said in a survey that they wanted Livedoor instead of Rakuten to run the new franchise there, though Rakuten was thought to have more business stability. In fact, that’s why they were ultimately selected. A new team will incur losses early on, and Rakuten had the edge in in pretax profit as well as total assets and sales. The new team became known as the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, or the Rakuten Eagles for short.

Finally, the last glaring problem with Japanese baseball ownership was rectified when the league approved the purchase of the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks by Softbank Corp., an Internet service provider headed by President Masayoshi Son, an ethnic Korean. Unlike the troubled Kintetsu Buffaloes, who could not draw a million fans, the Hawks drew three million and were recent winners of the Japan Series. “My task is to make a team loved by a huge number of fans into a more decent one,” Son said at a press conference in Fukuoka.

Thus, four months after the crisis began, the hidebound element of Japanese baseball was gone in disgrace, the Kintetsu Buffaloes had merged with another team, bailing out the troubled ownership, another financially troubled owner had found a purchaser with deep pockets, and a new team was created with a young, ambitious owner….

Team ownership was relinquished by old-fashioned, old-line businesses with no ideas how to get Japanese baseball out of its downward spiral and placed in the hands of bright, young, energetic entrepreneurs from the Internet industry brimming with new ideas for the sport.

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