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Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

Baseball news from Japan and Asia

Welcome to the Bayside West: Yokohama Blog

Featuring Michael Westbay (a.k.a. westbaystars)

Michael Westbay has been blogging about Pro Yakyu since before the word "blog" entered the vernacular. Here he writes about Pro Yakyu in general, and the Yokohama BayStars in particular.

Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

7 replies. Most recent reply: May 31, 2008 2:19 PM by Guest

I had the distinct pleasure of going out to eat and chat with a group of baseball enthusiasts last night. You might know a couple of them, like Jim Allen (of the Daily Yomiuri) and Robert Whiting (You Gotta Have Wa, et al).

One of the first conversations to come up was about the new commissioner and some "unusual" goings on within NPB. Both Whiting-san and Allen-san had heard from reliable sources that MLB-Japan is coming in the near future.

What exactly is MLB-Japan? It seems to be one of two things:
  1. MLB putting a team in Tokyo (Seoul and Shanghai as well) or
  2. MLB swallowing NPB into its fold
How will the logistics work? Well, that depends on which of the two schemes is put into place. If #2 is implemented (which struck me as the main theme of the conversation), most games will be within the Japan (or Asian) division, with 1 or 2 team taking a Tigers-like Road of Death through North America for 2-4 weeks while a couple of North Americans teams tour Japan (and Asia). Every possible match up won't happen for a number of years (or within a decade?), which will help to keep things fresh after the initial novelty wears off.

That initial novelty, of course, will mean that such a merger and tour would be wildly popular in Japan for the first few years. The Yankees or RedSox most likely won't be touring Japan those first few years since any low market team can be well promoted. I don't know how well the Japanese will take having their "favorite sons" not on such a tour, but marketing-wise I can see the reasoning. (I just think that there may be unforeseen backlash by such a strategy.)

Now, hang on, you say. The MLB can't just romp in and take over NPB. There are all kinds of protectionist laws in Japan to prevent foreign take overs of Japanese companies.

Well, there's a funny thing occurring, with seemingly coincidental timing. Those laws that prevent foreign interests from taking over Japanese companies are being loosened. Japan avoided Murdoch taking over the media back in the 1990s (so he killed responsible journalism in North America instead - sorry about that), but it doesn't look like Japan will be able to keep MLB locked out for long. MLB International's Tokyo office was set up many years ago for this, and they're finally getting closer to their goal.

And is it a coincidence that the new commissioner is on very friendly terms with the MLB powers-that-be? He's a huge baseball (and MLB) fan, and has thrown out the cerimonial first pitch at many MLB games. Is he the vehicle to create a smooth transition to NPB and MLB merging? That's the impression I got from listening to Jim and Bob.

Finally, there was a part of the conversation that I didn't quite understand. Whiting-san mentioned that the new commissioner was to have less power, where I thought that I'd been reading that he would have more power (to resolve differences). Whiting-san said that the changes were being made to prevent possible backlash (lawsuits) from the Players Association or from teams that are disposed of in the merger. So are the new bylaws a Trojan horse to get such a merger through with preemptive legal binding?

I found the evening fascinating as I just listened to the conversation flow through various topics. But the MLB-Japan one came up a number of times. Whiting-san said that he'd written about this topic a number of times in Yukan Fuji, but that the word hasn't spread. (Some people prefer to be deaf to what they don't want to hear.)

One other topic that came up was that Robert is working on a revision to "Wa." There are 20 years of baseball culture to update - some things have changed, others have remained the same. He'd sworn that he was done writing baseball books a number of times, but "they" won't let him stop.

I know I can sit there forever listening to his stories of watching Enatsu, O-N, and other legends of the game in the days when the whole country stopped what it was doing to watch Pro Yakyu. Will MLB-Japan be enough to bring back such a golden age? Or has society moved on to where sport doesn't matter as much as other entertainment? I know that I'm looking forward to more stories and insight to Pro Yakyu when the revised "Wa" is released.
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Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Christopher | Posted: May 16, 2008 11:44 AM | Posts: 3481 | From: Tokyo | HAN Fan | Registered: Sep, 2004 ]
Does the new commissioner have the power or authority to push this kind of change through? I can forsee enormous press resistance and possibly fan resistance as well. This will impact on the owners so whilst it is possible is it feasible?

I am also puzzled about the rationale behind this - why? Did you pick up any information on this point?

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Guest: Muratafan | Posted: May 17, 2008 3:13 PM ]
I am a huge NPB fan and as much as I respect Allen and Whiting, this scenario is beyond imaginable. Logistically, it would be impossible since no one would want to deal with the jet lag, let alone the flying distance. Also, the travel costs - especially now with oil being over $100/bbl and that's not going to change anytime soon - would be prohibitively expensive. Sure, under the scenario presented - a Tigers-like death march (and now with the Osaka dome, it's not nearly the death march it used to be) - you could amortize the costs of travel, but...

Another HUGE problem is the local TV rights. This is a major sore spot with many non-Yankee/YES and/or non-Boston/NESN American baseball fans. The Red Sox and Yankees get upwards of $60 million/year for their local TV rights (to say nothing of their radio rights). One of the biggest reasons is that their games are on prime time and these broadcasts reach so many people in prime time. So, I am pretty certain that Hank Steinbrenner and the Bosox owners don't exactly covet a 7 a.m. time slot for the Red Sox to play the Yakult Swallows at Jingu.

I cannot see a single owner who would be excited about travelling to Japan to play a Japanese-based team.

How about the Giants? Their American games would be on in the morning...again a huge drain on potential TV revenues for them.

Finally, how about the U.S. players union? How many of those guys would be in favor of such a move?

If anything, I could POTENTIALLY see Japanese owners being open to the idea, but not a single U.S. owner nor the U.S.-based players association being open to it either. It COULD work, but I cannot fathom why American baseball owners - who are doing very, very well right now - would be in any hurry to do this.

It is unreal the competition to be the sponsor of NESN's Extra Innings show, let alone be a part of the Boston Red Sox regular broadcast. NESN exists pretty much for one reason: Bosox telecasts. YES was created solely to air Yankees games and to cut out the middle-man (i.e. WPIX used to cover the Yankees in the 1980s and they outbid other stations). YES now directly negotiates with all of its advertisers and YES makes the Yankees a bundle. The Yankees' revenues last year were close to $400 million - with at least $100 million of that due to broadcast (radio and TV) revenues.

Heck, look at the stink the Central League owners threw when they had interleague play thrown at them! This uber-international league has been bandied about for the NBA and it just can't be done. The time zone differences are so huge and the local TV rights revenue so big that there really isn't enough profit for it to go through.

The UEFA cup CAN be internationalized on the continent since the travel isn't that difficult and the time zone differences are extreme either.

Personally, I think the WBC is about as international as it is going to get. I am really looking forward to it next year.

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: westbaystars | Posted: May 17, 2008 9:47 PM | Posts: 35252 | From: Yokohama, Japan | YBS Fan | Registered: Aug, 2001 ]
Oh, did I just report what I heard and not what I thought? In that case:

I agree with you, Murutafan, completely in that the MLB moving in and taking over NPB doesn't make any sense - for owners on either side of the Pacific.

The only part of this whole thing that I find plausible is that the MLB wants to control professional baseball worldwide, and getting a controlling interest in Japan will make movement of players from Japan to North America more affordable and while in their prime. As the MLB has done with South America, they want to do in Asia. (If you haven't read it, I'd recommend "Baseball Without Borders." The Asia section shows how totally out of touch with reality MLB is in China. And it describes very well the history and current state of baseball in Latin America with overtones of how MLB has made it so.)

Now for a disclaimer: I don't understand business. So taking business advise from me is not a good idea. (Look at all the information I give away for free! Is that good business sense?) Yet the tone that I got from listening to this conversation was that the MLB having a stake in Japan (and Korea and China) would further MLB's business - especially in the short term.

MLB currently gets 1 out of 4-5 pages of the sports dailies - and those articles are pretty much exclusively about Japanese players in MLB - not MLB itself. The powers-that-be in MLB probably think that if MLB had a local team in Tokyo that it could then get people to think more about the league as a whole rather than just those few who have gone over. That would mean more merchandise sold for those minor players like A-Rod, Derick Jeter, etc. who kind of pass through the radar occasionally between the major blips of Matsuzaka, H. Matsui, etc.

I'm still skeptical about the whole feasibility of such a venture. But if MLB got directly involved with Japanese baseball (like buying a team - remember, the league ran the Montreal Expos before scheming to have a three way owner shift and move the Expos to Washington D.C.), it be a huge paradigm shift that will upset pretty much everybody in the industry. Is it a coincidence that the country's laws and NPB's "Baseball Agreement" are being modified to make such a scenario possible? What was the meaning of Watanabe inviting MLB to open their season at Tokyo Dome on the same week as the Pacific League opener? Contraction was pushed pretty hard by a number of owners back in 2004 - is this a resurgence of that? The Giants have threatened to leave the league a number of times in the past if they didn't get their way - is this about finally going through with that threat? Will this help or hurt Japanese baseball?

I know, I've got more questions than answers. And it's unlikely that anything will transpire until after the new "MLB friendly" commissioner takes over next year. If his term is set to two years (one of the changes I've heard about), then if anything, it will come down in his second term (2010) after which he'd be sent packing and we'll have to accept our new Major League overlords with the person who made it happen no longer on the scene.

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Christopher | Posted: May 18, 2008 9:59 AM | Posts: 3481 | From: Tokyo | HAN Fan | Registered: Sep, 2004 ]
An MLB team in Tokyo would be an interesting proposition if just from the logistics side of things (I would love to try and work these out). As a single entity it wouldn't work. It would run into exactly the same problems as all other teams in Tokyo, getting the fan base out given the insane hours people work here and as a matter of fact building a fan base. I would also hazard a guess that it would have to spend most of its time in America isolating itself from the Japanese fan base. This of course is if you get the current owners agreement (who was it who said getting the owners to agree was like trying to herd cats?). Watanabe certainly doesn't have the power to force this change through anymore and any threat to leave NPB is just a smokescreen. The days of the Giants control are over.

Where MLB might have a chance is buying a Japanese team and running it as part of NPB. An eventual takeover of NPB might also be possible but only as a long term and secret objective. Once this aim was revealed it would be blocked immediatley (the Steel Partners/Bulldog affair is an ideal illustration of the lengths Japanese authorities will go to to eliminate threats). Furthermore, the new commissioner is a diplomat. These people are adept at lying and concealing their true feelings - someone who got to the highest levels of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is unlikely to be so pro-MLB as initially appears. He is likely to be under considerable subtle pressure to tow the line and if he doesn't his term will not be long.

I don't think that this is anything that can happen quickly - it would be a long term thing if ever. I think that the important thing MLB needs to remember is that Japanese baseball is Japanese and not an easily swallowed branch of America.

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Guest: Muratafan | Posted: May 18, 2008 11:35 AM ]
I thought more about this today and what I REALLY think MLB wants is a piece of China. What MLB could do is to start a minor league/AAA level league in China and stock it with up-and-coming AA-AAA level talent and fill out the rosters using a great deal of Chinese local talent - some of which could be cultivated into MLB stars. Then, when that talent goes to MLB (hopefully some of the talent being called up will be native Chinese) - MLB has a potentially huge audience and toe-hold in China.

In turn, MLB could cultivate Chinese baseball to the point where it might equal Japanese baseball (this may take decades, but one never knows). At that point, MLB has a controlling stake in Chinese baseball and then they could make the Japanese baseball owners an offer they couldn't refuse in terms of $$$. Logistically, a 24-team league with 12 Japanese teams, at least 4 Korean teams, 3 Taiwanese teams (2 in Taipei; 1 in Kaoschiung) and 5 Chinese teams (with teams in Shanghai, Beijing and other coastal cities) is quite do-able and potentially extremely/ridiculously profitable.

It all depends on whether baseball takes root in mainland China. If it does, I could certainly see this scenario come to light. The Japanese owners probably wouldn't initially go for it, but if MLB forked over enough $$$'s, then I could certainly see where this thing could be doable and profitable.

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Sara B | Posted: May 22, 2008 4:29 PM | Posts: 265 | From: Vancouver / Osaka | HT Fan | Registered: Apr, 2003 ]
Oh God, say it ain't so, Westbay-san. I think of all the wondrous innovations brought to the game by MLB (destruction of glorious old ballparks; movement of teams for profit; unaffordable ticket and food prices; Bud Selig as commisioner; Bobby Bonds the *HomeRunKing* et al) and think about how NPB would be changed -- "bettered" no doubt in American eyes -- by such "progress" were it folded under the MLB umbrella. Please oh please let us lovers of yakyu be spared such horror.

Re: Coming Soon: MLB-Japan

[ Author: Guest: RobInDetroit | Posted: May 31, 2008 2:19 PM ]
Would it be out of the question for MLB to make a purchase of NPB as a whole and re-branding it into something along the lines of "MLB Japan"?

The concept could be simple (in theory). There would be no merger between clubs or schedules, but rather have NPB adapt to MLB's style and ruling. Share profits with Major League Baseball and be marketed in Japan as it is marketed in the States and Canada.

Imagine if MLB used their North American resources to re-brand Japanese teams. Revamp Japanese uniforms via their deals with Majestic/New Era (note, I don't mean MAJOR changes to the jerseys, as I find most NPB jerseys to be superb). Something to generate interest in the sport again. Encourage sponsors for MLB in Camerica (Canada/America) to advertise in Japan (ala how Japanese companies are sponsoring games in places like New York, L.A., Seattle, and Boston), which makes up for lack of sponsors who ditched teams.

No more odd trading systems, but rather a free trading system between NPB teams and all MLB teams. If NPB teams are sharing revenue with MLB teams, they should have the money to bring over MLB stars and keep them. No gaijin-limit rules either, as they would abide by MLB roster rules.

The two brands of MLB Japan and MLB (North America?) could meet at the end of the year in a TRUE World Series.

I suppose this whole theory is out of the question for the simple fact that it'd be so risky and so BIG, but it's worth at least talking about.
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