Japanese basketball is suffering from an identity crisis. Besides Yuta Tabuse, the average citizen cannot name a handful of other top-level Japanese players. Indeed, this is problem No. 1.
Making matters worse, the Japan Basketball Association, the sport’s national governing body, remains woefully incompetent when it comes to assembling a men’s national team that can seriously challenge for a spot in the Summer Olympics, having last qualified for the 1976 Montreal Games. This is another Grand Canyon-size issue.
In other words, the sport is irrelevant to most people in Japan.
Now, there is preliminary talk of a future merger between the Japan Basketball League and the upstart bj-league, which began play in the fall of 2005. (A JBA officials meeting will be held next weekend in Niigata.)
With the unwavering support of the JBA’s public relations hype machine, the JBL likes to identify itself as the sport’s performance and financial blueprint of success in Japan — the nation’s true premier league. In reality, though, it’s an act eerily similar to a magician’s use of smoke and mirrors to complete a trick.
It’s an illusion.
“If the bj-league actually agreed to (the merger), it would kill the bj-league, and eventually it would kill any of the bj-league teams that joined,” a source told me. “The JBL (business) model, company-sponsored teams that pay all the bills, isn’t sustainable because everyone bleeds money.”
The evidence vehemently supports that claim.
“Since I have been involved with Japan basketball here, here are some of the JBL teams that have folded: Sumitomo, NKK, Japan Energy, Daiwa, Mitsui Insurance, Denso, Aichi Kikai, Hitachi Osaka, Fukuoka, Bosch (Zexel) and Isuzu,” the source, looking back on the past dozen years, told The Japan Times. He also cited Marubeni, a former JBL first-division team that moved down to the second division and then folded.
Furthermore, Kumagai Gumi folded after the 1993-94 season, the OSG Phoenix left the JBL and became the bj-league’s Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix after the 2007-08 season, and the teams now called the Saitama Broncos and Niigata Albirex BB defected from the JBL’s ranks to help establish the bj-league in 2005.
“To improve basketball in Japan, the JBA and the JBL gave us the ‘Super League,’ which was just the same JBL, minus teams that folded, with a ‘super’ new name,” the source continued. “Then they announced they would form a ‘new’ league. They even produced a farewell to the JBL, thanks for the memories. And the following season Japan was blessed with a brand new basketball league called the JBL. Not only the exact same league and the exact same teams, they couldn’t even come up with a new name!”
During this year’s NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, a discussion of Japanese basketball’s current state of affairs came up among coaches.
The source said one JBL head coach expressed his hope that the two leagues would merge in the near future, “or else he feared that the JBL might fold.”
“I don’t know if he would make that same comment today, but the reality is that other than maybe Toyota and Aisin, all of the JBL teams could fold if they keep losing money.”
Rera Kamuy Hokkaido has slashed its budget by about 33 percent for this season and is a team that “could go out of business at any time,” he said. What’s more, Hitachi’s foreign player salaries have been reduced by about 40 percent this season, and Link Tochigi Brex’s foreign player salaries are down by 30 to 40 percent, according to the source.
Again: The numbers show the reality that the JBL faces major obstacles in the future.
That’s not to say, however, that the bj-league is thriving.
Take the Takamatsu Five Arrows, for example, who on Friday announced they are still ¥55 million short of their estimated necessary budget for this season.
The bj-league “has no major sponsors and no national team players,” the source said, pinpointing two major problems for the bj-league, the second of which has been due to the fact that the JBA hasn’t sanctioned the bj-league since its inception.
“Money problems have forced many teams to reduce salaries and budgets,” he continued. “Oita, Takamatsu and Tokyo have been question marks all summer, although it looks like all three may field some kind of team this season . . . but we have to wait and see. And still there are three teams (Akita, Miyazaki, Shimane) waiting to join next season because of the low cost to get started and the fact that having a team in a small local market does attract support from fans and businesses.”
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Company-run sports teams are a relic of Japan’s post-World War II economic boom. As society changed, illustrated by the Japan Football Association’s 100-year plan for the J. League, the model switched to teams being supported and operated by business groups in a local area, rather than by a single corporation.
Which is why many believe the JBL’s business model is outdated and its future existence is a question mark.
Another source, with key contacts in the bj-league and the JBL, dished out the following insight about JBL squads:
• Link Tochigi Brex “eyed (joining) the bj-league in the past. . . . The bj-league also shopped for Tabuse in the past, too.”
• Toshiba “is hurting financially. Nakano-san (bj-league president/COO Hidemitsu Nakano) won’t rest until Kanagawa gets a team. Maybe (the bj-league) will ask for the rights to manage the Brave Thunders since Toshiba refuses to run the team as a pro (team).”
• Hitachi is “ailing like Toshiba.”
• Mitsubishi Electric probably won’t defect to the bj-league, “but it won’t surprise me since the team has been working to earn revenue and not depend on its corporate budget for the last three years. I have spoken to inside people and their ultimate goal is to be fully pro and gain favor by not being excessive baggage for the company.”
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During this global financial recession, all sports leagues have been affected by economic difficulties, including the NBA. The Miami Heat’s basketball operations staff members, for example, took 20 percent pay cuts for the coming season so the team could avoid laying off more employees, ESPN.com recently reported.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley are among those with reduced salaries in the aftermath of the team’s May layoffs (20 members of the team’s business operations staff).
The above facts are pertinent to the challenges now faced by the bj-league.
Or as this column’s primary source pointed out: “If the bj-league stayed its present course, keeping costs down, expanding, but also getting rid of — or finding ways to strengthen — the weak franchises, and stopped worrying about someday pleasing the JBA, in about five years there would only be four to five JBL teams left, and eventually joining the bj-league would be the only option.”
He added: “There are no bj-league teams that could really afford to operate as the JBL teams do, so any team that merged or joined the JBL would soon go out of business.
“Any compromise only works if you reduce the salaries for the players on JBL teams, disperse some or all of the JBL players throughout all of the teams, and have a draft to ensure that good college players don’t all end up at Toyota or Aisin. I don’t see any JBL teams agreeing to any of that anytime soon.”
And so the status quo remains — at least for now.
Nevertheless, pro basketball’s future in Japan remains cloudy.
“Most likely, there will be no agreement, compromise or merger,” the source concluded. “And we will have to wait a few years to see who the survivors are.”