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Kawachi has bj-league heading in right direction

by Jack Gallagher

You never get a second chance to make a first impression.

Jack Gallagher

Japan’s first professional basketball league took that wisdom to heart when it went about setting up a six-team circuit for its inaugural season, which concluded successfully on April 30 with the Osaka Evessa’s 74-64 victory over the Niigata Albirex in the championship final before 7,641 fans at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum.

Having worked as an executive in the NBA for several years, and having seen basketball all over the world during my career, I must say that I was very impressed with the organization, presentation and spirit displayed at bj-league games this season, especially during the recent four-team playoff weekend.

Any new league is going to have a few kinks to work out in its first year, but what I liked most about these folks is how undaunted they were. Going into uncharted territory, with a vast sporting landscape to compete against, they did it their way and remained optimistic no matter the obstacle.

One thing I learned long ago in the pro sports business, is that if you don’t promote yourself, no one will.

The bj-league recognizes this, and has modeled itself after the NBA in bringing both basketball and entertainment to fans.

News photoThe Osaka Evessa and team president Mitsunori Uehara celebrate after winning
the inaugural bj-league title on April 30 at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum.

The atmosphere this season was so enthusiastic, from the many children and young fans in attendance, to the music, cheerleaders and teams tossing basketballs into the stands before and after games.

Taking a page out of the J. League’s handbook, the bj-league has produced a first-class environment for fans right out of the box, something that makes you want to be a part of it, and also see it succeed.

In time, both the quality of play and attendance should improve, but for its very first season, the bj-league showed that courage, vision and some razzle-dazzle can be successfully combined to create an attractive product.

With teams in Tokyo, Osaka, Sendai, Saitama, Niigata and Oita playing a 40-game schedule, primarily on the weekends, the league has set the table for future success.

Commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi, who envisions a 12-team, two-conference system, with each franchise playing 80 games within five years, was encouraged by what he saw this season.

“I am convinced we can make this league better and better,” Kawachi said after the final, which had the air of an NCAA tournament game, with so many vocal supporters showing the colors of their teams.

“We have a philosophy of us being an ‘evolving’ league. We appreciate input from media and fans with ideas on how to improve.”

Kawachi, a former player for and coach of the Japan national team, also made it clear that he has no intention of imposing a rule to limit the number of foreigners each team can have.

“In the past, Japanese coaches have always complained that Japanese players have few chances to play with foreigners, so they get beaten because they don’t have experience. This is a challenge for Japanese players to find out how much they can play in these circumstances.”

Kawachi, who announced before the league tipped off in November that two new franchises — in Kagawa and Toyoma prefectures — would be added for the 2006-2007 campaign, admitted that most of the bj-league teams were in the red this season.

“There were just one or two teams that made money. This was something we had expected . . . our business model was that we would be in the red in the first season.”

The league had initially hoped to draw around 3,000 fans per game this season, but the final number was closer to 2,000 (2,070).

Nevertheless, the bj-league has made its mark and should be encouraged by what it was able to accomplish this season. It knows that when you are vying for the entertainment yen in a competitive marketplace, you have to do something different.

I keep thinking back to something my father used to tell me about pro sports when I was growing up: “Jack, just remember one thing — it’s show business.”

When David Stern became commissioner of the NBA, 22 years ago, he understood this concept.

The bj-league is very fortunate that Toshimitsu Kawachi does as well.