Livedoor establishes pro baseball club

Downsized players destined for Sendai?

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Internet portal site operator Livedoor Co., which had unsuccessfully sought to buy pro baseball’s Osaka Kintetsu Buffaloes, said Thursday it has set up a new baseball club with hopes of joining one of the two professional leagues next season.

The yet-to-be named new team franchise will be based in Sendai, where local authorities have already agreed on the plan and are ready to cooperate, the company said.

Livedoor joins Rakuten Inc., the country’s largest Internet shopping mall operator, which said it will apply with the Nippon Professional Baseball organization to form a team. Both companies seek to fill the gap that will be left by a merger of the Orix BlueWave and the Buffaloes in the Pacific League.

Livedoor applied with Nippon Professional Baseball for team ownership Thursday.

“I think the odds are pretty good,” Livedoor President Takafumi Horie told a news conference in Tokyo, referring to possibilities of the new team being accepted into either the Pacific League or the Central League.

According to the membership application filed with NPB, Livedoor on Tuesday set up a separate company, Livedoor Baseball, to manage the team and its related business.

Horie said players will be assembled from those left out in the Buffaloes-BlueWave merger.

Livedoor will also tap players from other professional teams and secure “foreign players through its own route,” he said, adding that the team’s manager and coaches will be chosen by the end of October. Horie said he picked Sendai as home for the new team because of the enthusiastic courting by local authorities. He said he met with Miyagi Gov. Shiro Asano last week in Tokyo and won the governor’s backing.

The Sendai Municipal Government as well as the prefecture are considering either renovating an aging prefectural baseball stadium or building a new one for Livedoor’s team, Horie said.

The company said it hopes to see average attendance of 23,000 per game and to turn a profit in the first few years.

Livedoor failed to acquire the Buffaloes, a financially struggling team that plans to merge with BlueWave. Horie had said the company would build its own pro team if its bid for the Buffaloes failed.

Currently, Miyagi and its neighboring prefectures do not have a professional baseball club, and Livedoor said it hopes its team will enjoy popularity by having its base in “the baseball vacuum.”

The firm also said the club will probably benefit from collaboration with the local professional soccer team Vegalta Sendai in an effort to boost area enthusiasm for sporting events.

Asked about its chances of beating out Rakuten in its quest for professional league membership, Horie said bluntly: “Why not accept the two teams? I think the league can accommodate two or three teams.”

Rakuten President Hiroshi Mikitani said Thursday he hopes to establish a team in Kobe, where the BlueWave is based, and wants to use the stadium where that team plays most of its home games. Mikitani owns the Vissel Kobe pro soccer team.

While some of its 12 teams have changed hands in recent years, the Japanese professional baseball system has not seen the entry of a new team for decades, with hefty entry fees — yen 6 billion — and the reluctance of existing team owners proving to be hefty barriers.

Yet the issue has attracted considerable public attention since the merger talks between the Buffaloes and BlueWave came to light. These negotiations have raised the specter of players losing their jobs and fans losing a team to root for.

By threatening a weekend strike, the players’ union won a concession last week from the owners, who said they would consider lowering the hurdles faced by prospective entrants.

Meanwhile, the entry of the Internet startups could jolt the country’s pro baseball world, which has been widely accused of being an exclusive club comprising the old guard of corporate barons.

Livedoor’s Horie has said he will run the team in a way that involves rank-and-file fans directly, such as asking them to own small equity stakes.

He also said the team can take advantage of its parent company’s mainstay businesses, such as sending notices to registered fans’ cell phones when their favorite players are at bat.