As the bj-league representative and president of Invoice inc., Ikuo Kimura draws a clear line from the conventional sports chairpeople and directors.
The 47-year-old Kimura is energetic, looks you straight in the eye and gives you his honest feelings.
Past the midway point in the inaugural season of the six-team circuit, he sat down with The Japan Times and gave his thoughts about this season and the league’s future.
The Japan Times: First off, why did you decide to take part in the bj-league?
Japan Times in Tokyo.
Ikuo Kimura: There is virtually no professional sports business (in Japan) that stands alone by itself. For example, most of the teams of the NPB and the J. League are in the red.
And basketball-wise, we had only had a corporate league, and there was no pro league (before the bj-league). So we see only a few cases where a professional sports league is making a profit by itself.
We have so many enthusiastic players at schools. And university kids are playing hard, too.
But the corporate teams do not try to recruit new players. I was depressed by the situation.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Niigata Albirex, (president Hiromu) Ikeda-san, was always talking of his hopes of making a pro league while the team was playing in the JBL. But the JBL wouldn’t try to make it happen.
Then he said he wanted to form a pro league by any means, even if the club had to depart from the JBL. He assembled people who love basketball and tried to establish a professional league, called the bj-league.
At the time, I was a friend of Ikeda-san, and he knew I loved basketball and told me about his ideas. He said it wasn’t possible for him to be one that presided over the whole league (being the president of Albirex), so he asked to me to take on that role.
The company name, Invoice, and your name became famous when the company gained the naming right of the Seibu Lions’ home stadium, Seibu Dome, last year.
Yes. But also, when Seibu Railways had a scandal (some of the company’s employees were charged with paying off racketeers in 2004), the media speculatively wrote that my company would buy the ballclub. Then, it made the name of our company famous.
One night, when Rakuten and Livedoor were trying to enter the professional baseball, I was drinking with (former Seibu Lions pitcher and manager) Osamu Higashio. He referred to the presidents of the companies, saying, “They don’t know anything about pro baseball.”
So I replied to him, saying, “Neither of them may not know about it. But what about the owners of the current ballclubs? They don’t know anything about baseball, either.
“All the teams are dependent on the (Yomiuri) Giants, aren’t they?
“Besides, you’re not of the ballclubs’ side but of players’ side, aren’t you?
“If you are really of the players’ side, you are supposed to stand by the players and root for those who are trying to reform the hopeless league.”
Later, Higashio said to me, “I understand. Then why don’t you support the farm team (of the Lions) putting the name of Invoice with the team name?”
So I replied, “OK, I’m going to do it,” but I never operated the farm team, and just put the company’s name with it to advertise.
But, on the other hand, in the bj-league, we never, ever put a company’s name with a team’s name. That is because we don’t like the teams to be dependent on advertising fees to run them.
I believe each club needs to create profits by itself.
So you are eventually going to take out your company’s name from the Lions’ farm team?
Yes. I think it’s good to have our company’s name on the Seibu Dome, because television and newspapers mention the name repeatedly. But the farm team is not prominent at all.
How often have you actually been to arenas to watch bj-league games this season?
Every weekend, I’ve been somewhere to watch games, not only the Tokyo area but in all the cities.
Were you pleased with the first half of the season? Was it what you had expected and anticipated?
In terms of the games themselves, it’s been better than I expected. I mean, we’ve been able to see exciting games.
Teams like Osaka, Niigata and Oita have been playing interesting and exciting games, and the arenas have often been filled.
Tokyo (Apache) has drawn about 2,000 fans every game, but the arena is kind of huge. So it may look it has few spectators.
They (the teams) may be able to play better and more interesting games, but considering this is the first season, they’ve been great.
How about financial aspects? Have the teams been meeting their goals?
Well, this is our first season, so it’s been hard to get sponsors. In that respect, each team has been struggling.
But Osaka and Niigata have been great, and their ticket sales are awesome.
Sendai and Oita have been fine, too. Tokyo and Saitama are having a hard time.
Tokyo’s spending a lot of money for the arena, Ariake Colosseum. It’s not that expensive to rent, but costs a lot for hiring security, and running the lights and air conditioning.
You expected that it would be hard to get sponsorships?
Right. That’s why we made the league a corporation (the league is owned by Japan Professional Basketball League Inc.) and tried to be capitalized. We set three steps at the outset.
We didn’t expect to get sponsorships and TV broadcasts, and knew it would be difficult to gain season ticket holders at the outset. So what we tried was to assemble investments, promising that we would list the company.
And then, the next step was, if the league gets popular and famous then we can expect sponsorships. If we get sponsorships, we can expect profits. If we have profits, then we can list the company. And if we can list, we can give some return to the investors.
So that was our three-step plan. If we had declared that we wouldn’t list the company, nobody would invest in it.
Meanwhile, have you seen any problems or issues?
No, they’ve all been trying hard. The players are playing real hard.
Some teams transport by bus when they have games on the road. Doesn’t it make the players tired and lead to fatigue that may affect performance on the court?
Well, the distress of the players and the effort of the teams to try not to use money, which has to take precedence?
We know the players get tired, but it’s cheaper (taking buses). It’s obvious that airplane is more comfortable than a bus. But we don’t have money. So it is a great way of running an organization, isn’t it?
I think that it’s good the teams are aware of “cost.”
If this was the pro baseball league, which plays 130 games or so, it would be a different story.
But each team has only 40 games (in the bj-league). That means they have games only on weekends.
You come on Fridays, and play games on Saturdays and Sundays. The rest of the week, you can rest.
Yet isn’t it difficult for big men, especially foreigners, to be squeezed into a seat?
You know, most of the teams in the ABA (a minor league) in the U.S. are transporting by bus. So it is nothing strange.
The Apache do not have a practice facility and they always have to look for and reserve a place for that. Do you have any comment on that?
It’s good that their activities are like handmade. It feels like they are all trying hard to establish something from nothing.
If you said, “Why in the hell are you spending so much money?” then I would understand. But the teams are cost-conscious, and I think it’s beautiful.
Maybe Japanese basketball fans are comparing it to the NBA too much?
I doubt it. Because under the NBA, there are leagues such as the ABA.
In baseball as well, there are minor leagues.
Considering where we are, the bj-league is at the bottom.
Although we are a pro league, it is a brand new league that has just begun.
The players are only earning annual salaries like 3 million yen or 5 million yen. Now they’re trying hard to make it 10 million yen, 50 million yen, 100 million yen in, say, three years or five years.
Did you give the teams and players suggestions?
A lot. Even during a game. For example, I’ve told them to let the fans enter the floor after games.
I have come up with plans and ideas to make the fans enjoy the games. The official balls are thrown to the fans at games — that’s my idea, too.
Elsewhere, I’ve told referees to make clearer calls. They have to make stronger actions and speak out loud to let fans know why calls are made.
Outside the court, did you give any orders or suggestions?
I’ve seen some public-address announcers saying critical stuff about opposing teams, so I told them not to do it.
I’ve also told them to explain what happens, such as why two free throws are to be given, and why it is a one-and-one free throw situation, why a technical is called, and who it is called on, and etc.
There were scenes of fans dancing around during games in the first half of the season. It is not rarely seen in the JBL. What do you think about this?
The fact that it happened during the first half of the season is miraculous.
Although what we do is not flashy, we are steady, and not spending a lot of money, and are trying to make exciting, close and heart-stopping contests, such as games when you don’t know which side will win with under three minutes left, even though there is a 15-point gap.
There were talent gaps between the top teams and the lower teams in the first half. Do you have any comment on this?
No, well, rather than caring about who wins or loses, I do care about how a game is played.
As long as it is a close game that can excites fans until the final minutes, then I don’t care who wins. I hate a one-sided game.
You and the league want to actually bring fans to the arenas, rather than make them watch the games on TV?
No doubt. It’s not fun to watch a game on TV at all.
You know, in sports like baseball, soccer and football, the fields are so huge, and the distances from the fans to the field and players are so far.
So it may be more comfortable to watch them on TV. But in basketball, volleyball and ice hockey, the arenas are smaller and it’s better off going out to the arenas and watching them live.
Speaking of the arenas, accessibility to the bj-league arenas is not good, is it? For instance, the locations of Apache’s home arena, Ariake Colosseum, is too far from the central Tokyo.
Right, it’s not good. (But) there is nothing we can do with it now. As far as Ariake is concerned, although there might be some complaints, it’s a friendly place to watch a game.
What about the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium or Yoyogi Gymnasium Annex (in the middle of Tokyo)?
The shape of Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium makes it hard for fans to watch a game.
Yoyogi Gymnasium Annex is too small in terms of the capacity, and it’s hard to watch games there.
Also, we want to beat those who set goals of reaching Yoyogi Gymnasium Annex (which is often used for final games of big basketball tournaments, including the JBL playoffs) as the peak of basketball.
So we’ll never use Yoyogi Gym Annex. I personally think Yoyogi Gym Annex is an archaic nest of villains who only chase their own interests.
Isn’t it a bit disappointing that the Apache, the team of Japan’s capital city, has not been able to draw more people?
I don’t really mind. What’s more, I think that maybe there is no need to have a team in Tokyo.
I don’t really agree to the idea of having teams in big cities. It’s easier to have success by locating teams in local areas.
And there are, I don’t know why, gorgeous gymnasiums in local areas. The fans get really into the game and the sport of basketball is more popular in local areas. So it’s better in local areas.
On the other hand, Tokyo has too many sports teams.
In the same respect, Saitama, Chiba, Kanagawa, those are almost similar to Tokyo and those are not the best places.
However, it is an excuse to say that they don’t attract fans to the arenas because they are in big cities.
What about the Chiba Lotte Marines?
They are in Makuhari, but despite the fact that it is not where the headquarters of the parent company (Lotte) is, they still draw a lot of people to the stadium.
What about the Urawa Reds?
They are doing pretty good in Saitama, where is it said that it is difficult for sports to be successful.
Teams in Toyama and Kagawa Prefectures will join the league next season. How about the cities? We had never imagined there would be professional sports teams in those towns.
They are appropriate size towns. I have no doubt that they will be successful. You know, in local areas, there are local papers and TV stations and they give the teams recognition.
You can’t expect that in Tokyo or Osaka.
You have an opinion that team’s names should be segmented?
Yes. I’ve always said that teams should be named after segmented areas.
For example, the Osaka Evessa should be “Evessa Naniwa (old name of Osaka City),” and the Oita Heat Devils should be “the Beppu (the team’s franchise city) Heat Devils.”
What’s more, the Tokyo Apache should change the name to the “Sumidagawa (which flows through eastern Tokyo) Rivers.”
Think about where your team is based. Don’t make it big but small.
The Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles?
It is nonsense.
No one in Aomori Prefecture considers the team their team.
On the other hand, it makes people in Sendai think it is not their team. So the team is not well supported by either place.
What about Orix (Buffaloes), which is playing in both Kobe and Osaka?
How stupid. I’ve told the president of Orix, (Takashi) Koizumi, that the team won’t be cared for by either place.
Look at the J. League.
You hear the name of Kashima Antlers or Jubilo Iwata. Those are not ordinance-designated cities. I believe it is correct because they have become famous as a result.
Tell us about your plan and the bj-league’s goals for the next five or 10 years.
Well, I’m not sure. I’m not thinking it’s definitely going to be a success.
It may be a failure and the league may be absorbed by the JABBA (Japan Basketball Association, a governing body of the JBL).
I don’t know what’s going to happen.
Having that in mind, we’re trying to make it successful by any means.
So, if you ask what is our ideal situation for the future, it will be ‘not to be disbanded.’ To do that, each team has to make a profit by itself.