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MLB's Effect on Japan: Is the MLB destroying Japan's national pastime?

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MLB's Effect on Japan: Is the MLB destroying Japan's national pastime?

by Robert Whiting (Apr 11, 2007)

Best-selling author Robert Whiting, who has penned such classics as "You Gotta Have Wa," "The Chrysanthemum and the Bat" and "The Meaning of Ichiro," has written an exclusive four-part series for The Japan Times on the effect Major League Baseball is having on the Japanese pro game, and how the poor organization of the sport here is putting the latter at a fundamental disadvantage with their North American counterparts. The following is the first installment of the series.

The recent signing of Daisuke Matsukaza, on whom the Boston Red Sox spent $ 103 million has many people wondering about its effect on Japanese professional baseball, a tradition-bound game that dates back to 1936.

While Matsuzaka, a former Seibu Lions player, is only the latest in a string of stars to depart Japan in the past decade, his determination to leave, the high price he commanded and his prospects for long-term success in the major leagues does not bode well for Japanese baseball.

When the MVP of the Japanese national team can't wait to get to America, when a top major league club pays more for him than practically any other American free agent pitcher this year, and the U.S. sports media goes gaga over his arrival, odds are that even more Japanese players will follow in his footsteps, further contributing to the already uncertain status of the game in Japan.

The sighs of despair over the Matsuzaka defection, as well as the accompanying desertion of two other high-profile names, left-handed pitching artist Kei Igawa of the Hanshin Tigers and slugging third baseman Akinori Iwamura of the Yakult Swallows, could be heard in the highest circles of the Japanese game, except perhaps at Seibu, which pocketed a $ 51 million posting fee for surrendering its star pitcher (enough lucre to pay the entire team's salary for 2 1/2 years) and Hanshin, which received $ 25 million from the New York Yankees for the right to talk to Igawa.

The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles curmudgeonly manager, 71-year-old Katsuya Nomura, for one, moaned famously, "If this keeps up, Japanese baseball is truly finished."

Added Yomirui Giants kyudan daihyo (club representative) Hidetoshi Kiyotake: "Seibu might have made a nice profit in the short term, but in the long term, they're strangling themselves. This is a big loss for the baseball world."

The reasons for this growing migration are, of course, clear. One is the challenge.

After seeing superstars Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui give up great careers in Japan to prove themselves in North America, today's Japanese stars are no longer intimidated by baseball in America or content to be big fish in a small pond.

Matsuzaka said in a recent NHK interview, "It's only natural to want to test yourself in the best league in the world against the best players. The scale of big league ball is something else."

Another explanation is greenbacks.

Matsuzaka will triple his annual paycheck from ailing Seibu.

Moreover, MLB also offers better living and working conditions.

The new retro stadiums are more deluxe than those in Japan. Travel is easier. The hotels are top class.

As former New York Mets and Nippon Ham Fighters airhead outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo once put it, "In Japan, you carry your own bag, ride the train and stay in cheap business hotels. In the big leagues, everything is first class."

And, surprising though it may seem to some observers, most fans in Japan do not resent the defection of their stars. Instead, they feel a great sense of national pride and identification with them. Increasingly, fans prefer to watch live telecasts of MLB games in the morning on NHK's quasi-national booming satellite channel.

Typical are the remarks of Hiroyuki Chida, an editor at the prestigious Hayakawa Publishing firm and a longtime baseball fan: "I am very much excited to see Matsuzaka, Igawa and many other talented players go to the MLB. Japan has won the first WBC. Matsuzaka's performance will prove to the world that Japan's victory was not just a fluke, and that Japan is a country that has many world-class baseball players."

Indeed, the success in the United States on the part of the Japanese baseball star had helped ease an identity crisis Japan has long had with regard to America.

As the Asahi Shimbun famously editorialized after Ichiro surpassed George Sisler's single-season mark before a packed, cheering house at Safeco Field, "Japanese were once seen in the USA as a 'faceless' people obsessed with exporting cars and consumer electronics. The excellent play of the Japanese baseball players and their positive personalities have changed the world American image of the Japanese."

Added Masa Niwa, a well-known Seattle based reporter who writes for various Japanese sports publications: "People on the street look at us Japanese differently than they used to. There's a new respect."

However, in the 12 months since Team Japan won the inaugural WBC, as writers from Peter Gammons to Wayne Graczyk have noted, there has been a marked escalation in interest in Japanese baseball on the part of the MLB.

The country's ballfields, both high school and college as well as pros, have been infested with MLB scouts and their representatives, in a rapacious search for new talent.

This appetite, if left unchecked, claim many critics, will surely eventually ruin the Japanese Leagues, in much the same way it once ruined the old Negro League, as unwelcome as that comparison might be to Japanese baseball elitists.

There may be some truth to this, particularly in regard to the Yomiuri Giants, a team steeped in tradition and studded with great stars.

Perhaps the greatest was Sadaharu Oh, who smacked 868 career home runs and is generally regarded as one of the greatest hitters who ever lived.

According to Video Research, which tracks TV viewing figures in Japan, the Giants, who used to have nearly all their games telecast nationwide in prime time on terrestrial TV, enjoyed an astonishing per-game rating average of around 20 percent a decade or more ago.

Today, however, in the wake of the departure of Matsui, the biggest Yomiuri star in a generation, and a spate of losing seasons, it is down to single digits, representing a drop of approximately 10 million terrestrial TV viewers.

It was the biggest single loss of an audience since children's TV star Pee Wee Herman was caught flagrante delicto in an adult theater in Florida.

Each year the number of prime-time nationwide telecasts into Japan's 50 million-some homes via the country's conventional TV network decreases, as more and more gamecasts are relegated to Japan's relatively underdeveloped regional cable systems and SkyPerfect satellite channels (The number of Giants terrestrial network telecasts has declined from 70 to 40, as of 2007).

Yet, as predatory as the MLB may be, the Negro League analogy is flawed.

The Negro League existed because of the MLB color barrier, and integration of the sport in 1947 by Jackie Robinson made it no longer necessary. Since then, the standing tradition of the MLB has been to look for and sign on the best talent available, no matter from where.

This is something that contrasts with long-standing NPB ideas in Japanese baseball about limiting the number of gaijin suketto (foreign helpers), as non-Japanese players are known, and frequently expressed desires to field ethnically "pure" all-Japanese teams.

No, when all is said and done, the NPB's problems are primarily of its own making.

In Japan, professional baseball teams have always been the playthings of giant corporations. They have treated their players as vassals and viewed their teams as PR shills for their products.

The Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, the 2006 champions of Japan, are owned by meat processing giant Nippon Ham, and exist mainly for the purpose of promoting selling weiners.

It is considered less expensive to buy and operate a baseball team, that appears under the name of the parent company in the media every day, than it is to buy advertising on prime-time TV nightly in Japan.

The executives in charge of ballclubs in Japan are a reflection of this system. They come from corporate headquarters on brief rotations.

Whereas MLB general managers lie awake at night thinking of ways to create a better team and increase profits, their Japanese counterparts toss and turn at night scheming for transfers back to the parent company.

The present GM of the Orix Buffaloes, who joined the team this year, confessed to reporters that veteran star Kazuhiro Kiyohara was the only player on the team he had ever heard of. Given this mentality, it is no wonder that Japanese professional baseball swims in a sea of red ink.

Consider the following: Over the past 20 years, the MLB, now with 30 teams has seen attendance increase by 50 percent to nearly 75 million and revenue nearly triple, through expansion of the TV, merchandising and Internet markets, to $ 5.5 billion.

NPB growth, by contrast, has been flat.

Despite a reasonably sound infrastructure, modern ballparks and a high level of play, overall attendance has stagnated at around 20 million a year, even with the recent onset of interleague play and a two-tiered postseason playoff system.

Total revenue of the 12 teams has been estimated to be in the neighborhood of $ 1 billion.

Individual NPB teams, like their North American counterparts, do not normally open their books to the public, but this being the land of honne (one's real intention) and tatemae (official stance), ura (hidden meaning) and omote (surface), it is possible to make educated guesses about individual team finances.

There are two teams that have historically done well. The Giants and Tigers both draw 3 million fans a year and each are estimated to take in somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 billion yen annually, the bulk of that in ticket sales and TV rights.

But these clubs are also believed to donate their profits to their parent companies, the Yomiuri media conglomerate and (as of 2006) the Hankyu Railways, respectively. Most of the other NPB teams lose money.

In their championship season of 2006, the Fighters drew 1,635,410 fans to their home park, Sapporo Dome. The team still needed a multimillion dollar bailout from its parent company.

The Chiba Lotte Marines, who won the crown the year before, drew nearly 1.5 million fans in their Japan championship year, but according to estimates, the team still lost over 2 billion yen.

The Chunichi Dragons won the Central League pennant the past two years, but still ran deficits of over 10 billion yen.

Low TV revenues are one big reason for the red ink. Whereas the Giants are able to sell their TV rights at a robust 100 million yen per game (and the Tigers around 50 million yen), the Dragons have to settle for a rather low 10 million yen for most of their home games, Nippon Ham 3.8 million yen and the Marines a piddling 150,000 yen.

Contrast this to what the MLB is getting from its relatively minor contract in Japan alone -- a six-year TV deal to broadcast games here. It is worth $ 275 million and works out to roughly $ 250,000 per game. And that is just a fraction of the MLB-TV take back home.

It is an indication of the sorry state of affairs in the NPB that Matsuzaka will get more TV exposure in Japan by being in a Boston Red Sox uniform than he ever got playing for the Seibu Lions.

TV audiences for Lions games, which sold for 700,000 yen per contest last year, were estimated by Tokyo area sportswriters to be as low as 100,000 yen on cable and satellite.

Seibu's highest-rated game last year was the opener of the playoffs versus Softbank, when Matsuzaka faced off against Kazumi Saito, last year's PL pitcher of the year.

Aired on TBS, it drew a 6 percent rating in the Kanto area, a somewhat humble figure for such an important game and one that featured the country's two best hurlers.

It was nowhere near the ratings for the WBC final, which was watched by nearly one out of every two Japanese on Nippon TV, one of Japan 's largest commercial networks.

(Water consumption increased 25 percent during commercial breaks.)

Kozo Abe, a sports editor for the Fuji-Sankei group said, "Matsuzaka is a good athlete, but his popularity in Japan did not last past his rookie year. People were interested in his lovelife, his marriage, his famous traffic violations and whether or not he would go to America, but only a small segment of sports fans were actually interested in coverage of his games.

"The same was true of Ichiro when he was in Japan. It is only now, because he is in the States, that people are starting to pay attention again. Compared to Japan, the American game is just more dynamic -- it's bigger, stronger and faster. And more exciting, as long as Japanese players are in the game, of course."

Naturally, ALL of the games that Matsuzaka pitches for the Red Sox will be shown on NHK-BS satellite, now beamed into 13 million households, with a potential audience of around 32 million and growing.

Given the intense interest in Matsuzaka, in the wake of the enormous sum of money the Red Sox paid to acquire his services, viewership of some of Matsuzaka's games is expected to approach the unofficial BS record to date of an estimated 9 million people who watched Ichiro Suzuki break Sisler's record on Oct. 2, 2004, according to a special survey conducted by Video Research.

(That ratings firm normally limits itself to measuring conventional, terrestrial TV viewership, but made an exception for that game because of the mass interest and historic importance of the event.)

It is ironic that fans in Japan are now buzzing excitedly about upcoming Matsuzaka-Ichiro matchups in the MLB, when those matchups were largely ignored by the fans and the mainstream national media while both players were in the PL in 1999 and 2000.

At that time, the Tokyo Giants, as led by Matsui, occupied the spotlight nearly all the time.

It should be noted that the NPB plays under a comparative handicap -- if one can call free market forces an impediment -- in that, unlike the MLB where spanking new taxpayer "retro" parks and sweetheart deals are the norm, few NPB teams own their own stadiums and must therefore pay substantial leases to use the parks they play in, often without concession or signage rights that are taken for granted in North America.

Whereas the Baltimore Orioles use glamorous Camden Yards free of charge, and the Chicago White Sox pay $ 1 a year in rent for the use of Cellular Field, the Softbank Hawks pay rent of about 4.5 billion yen a year to use the Fukuoka Dome in Kyushu (which they renamed Yahoo Dome) in an exclusive arrangement that allows them to use it for concerts and other non-baseball events.

The Tokyo Giants have to pay 27 million yen a game to rent their home park, the Tokyo Dome.

Nippon Ham pays $ 75,000 per game for the rental of the Sapporo facility in out-of-the-way Hokkaido.

(The Seibu Lions own their own stadium but still manage to lose money, nonetheless.)

The lack of funds precludes investment in a proper minor league system -- the absence of such a developmental organization being one of the biggest defects in the Japanese game.

Although there are a number of talented rookies appearing each year, there are still not enough good young players coming up to compensate for the loss in star power.

There are 4,000 high school baseball teams producing some of the highest quality baseball in the world, but less than 100 new players get slots in the pros each year.

This compares unfavorably to the 1,500 MLB signs up each year in its multitiered farm systems.

Each NPB team has room for only a total of 70 players under contract and operates but one farm team which plays 100 games a year.

Since the parent companies do not want to make the investment needed to create a deeper system, this means that half the players in the minors wind up warming the bench. Those who want to play regularly must head to the less advanced and poorly run amateur industrial leagues or one of two small scale independent leagues that have recently opened up operations. Or else sign with a big league scout.

Said Masayuki Tamaki, Japan's leading baseball writer, summing up the difference between the MLB and the NPB: "One's professional and the other isn't. One cares about the game and the other doesn't. One knows how to market its product and make money while the other doesn't know its ass."

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