Whatever the bj-league is doing to promote itself across the nation, it isn’t working. In fact, it’s failing miserably to attract anything that resembles a decent-size fan base.
To examine the problem, let’s take a look at 10 regular-season games from the first four weeks of the season:
• On Oct. 23, the Hamamatsu Higashimikawa Phoenix-Toyama Grouses game in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, attracted 643 fans. A day later, the same teams had an audience of 828.
• On Nov. 2, there were 504 fans at the Oita HeatDevils-Takamatsu Five Arrows game in northern Kyushu. Their Nov. 3 contest was played before an announced crowd of 718.
• In Takamatsu, the Takamatsu-Rizing Fukuoka games on Nov. 6-7 featured crowds of 567 and 583.
• The Rizing-Kyoto Hannaryz games on Nov. 11-12 in Fukuoka, a city with more than a million people, were seen by 547 and 801 fans, respectively.
• In Gamagori, Aichi Prefecture, the Hamamatsu-Saitama Broncos series last weekend drew an audience of 489 on Saturday and 565 on Sunday.
The league is in serious trouble — a major crisis, really — if it cannot figure out a way to double or triple the size of its crowds at many of its games. Teams won’t be able to afford to pay the bills, and cost-cutting measures will only increase, with greater staff and player turnover. Which in turn will make teams, and the league as a whole, less attractive to fans.
On the other hand, some teams have proven they have the ability to attract respectable crowds game after game. Take the Sendai 89ers, for example. When Sendai played host to the expansion Akita Northern Happinets on Nov. 13, there were 3,760 fans at the game.
(In addition, the Ryukyu Golden Kings and Niigata Albirex BB have two of the league’s largest fan bases game after game.)
The biggest problem, it says here, is that most teams still do not have a true home arena. And the league’s basic approach to the season schedule is flawed. In the league’s sixth season, it’s time to break old habits and have common sense dictate the course of future policy.
What do I mean?
Well, there’s no reason that the Phoenix, the defending champions, should be playing regular-season games in Gamagori. The team should stick to playing the majority of its home games at Hamamatsu Arena and maybe a few in Toyohashi.
In the preseason, exhibition games should be played in small towns in a team’s home region, giving a greater percentage of fans a chance to see a game or two in their hometown.
When next season tips off, it’s time for the league to have a strict schedule that stipulates the following:
• A team is required to play a minimum of 75 percent of its home games at one gym.
• A team is required to play at least two home games per month, every month.
Otherwise, a team begins to become irrelevant to its home city. And it’s home city barely seems like a home city to the fans and the media, both of whom are absolutely necessary ingredients in a team’s long-term success and sustainability.
(Just remember: The Tokyo Apache were permitted by the league to have zero games in Tokyo during October, November and December, and then a schedule that features all 24 of their capital city games over the season’s final four months.)
The league’s current approach to scheduling reminds me of the way band managers book concerts for rock ‘n’ roll bands: they get ’em gigs in venues big and small — any place will do as long as there’s room for a small stage, a few microphones and a few speakers. For professional sports, this is a guaranteed-to-fail plan.
The 2010-11 season is barely a month old and there are growing signs — reminders, really — that Oita, Fukuoka and Takamatsu are troublesome markets for this league, which adds new teams in Chiba, Yokohama, Nagano and Morioka, Iwate Prefecture, next season.
So what’s the league’s strategy to attract more fans?
I’ve heard and seen nothing from the league — nor seen media reports about the league’s efforts — that resembles an organized, dedicated approach to getting fans into the stands.
Or as one astute observer has told me on a few occasions, “It seems like the league’s basic approach is this: ‘All we need to do is open the doors and the fans will show up.’ “
Where’s the clever marketing campaign?
The full-page ads in major newspapers and magazines?
The flashy billboards at major train stations?
Where’s the evidence that the league is actually making a sustained effort to raise its profile and get a decent percentage of the population to actually care about the league?
These things are practically non-existent.
And it’ll only get worse before it gets better if the same failed approach remains in place.
Indeed, rapid expansion has created its share of problems: more inexperienced officials, a watered-down talent pool of players, a high rate of coaching changes, for instance. Excuses won’t solve the problem.
Instead, it’s time for the league to get serious about building a product that a greater percentage of sports fans care about.
Here’s one idea worth considering immediately and establishing it as a league-wide rule: Buy two tickets and get one free to any bj-league game.
And one more: All groups of 10 or more people receive a 25 percent discount to attend any bj-league game.
Desperate times call for drastic measures.