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Small, Murakami offer opinions on MLB, NPB business strategies

by Jason Coskrey

Japanese baseball had trouble finding broadcast partners for the 2010 Japan Series between the Chiba Lotte Marines and Chunichi Dragons. That was a perplexing turn of events in a nation where the sport is king.

Now, try to imagine a scenario these days in which there was no broadcast coverage of the World Series in the U.S. Even this season’s matchup between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, neither among the majors’ glamour franchises, was readily available to baseball fans across the U.S.

By comparison, to not have every Japan Series game on terrestrial channels (TV and radio revenue was down ¥55 million) had to be distressing for NPB officials.

It paints a dour portrait of the state of affairs in the Japanese game, and spotlights the widening gap between the successes of Major League Baseball and the shortcomings of the NPB to market its game, even within its own borders.

That issue was recently tackled at a forum dealing with the business side of the game in the U.S. and Japan attended by Masanori Murakami, the first Japanese to play in the majors, current MLB star Prince Fielder and Jim Small, MLB’s vice president for Asia.

“Back in my days, Japanese were always saying ‘we need to catch up with Major League Baseball and overcome them,’ ” mused Masanori Murakami, a former pitcher who won 103 games in Japan. “Right now I don’t think that’s feasible. Because Japanese baseball is not really looking at the global points.

“For example, they are changing the ball they use in games. This is not even an internationally regulated ball, which means they don’t really use this type of ball in other countries. The top people in Japanese baseball need to be sensitive to those small matters.”

As attendance and revenue figures continue to soar in MLB, the NPB is looking for ways to stimulate what has become a stagnant market. The league lost money this year and, in an effort to generate revenue announced last month it was asking the players’ association to sign off on a third game for the 2010 All-Star Series.

“I think by any measure this is the golden age of baseball in the United States,” Small said. “People talk about the 1950s and ’60s being the golden age of baseball, but when you look at what’s happening right now, when you see the amazing young players we have in our game right now, we have right now such an incredible cadre of players that fans are able to watch.”

That alone doesn’t seem to account for the chasm between the two leagues. Japanese baseball, after all, has its own stockpile of homegrown stars such as Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters ace Yu Darvish and Yomiuri Giants shortstop Hayato Sakamoto and even a strong group of foreigners headed by the Giants’ Alex Ramirez and Aaron Guiel of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.

If the problem is not the on-field product, the underlying implication is the way the NPB markets its product is one of the biggest reasons profits are up in MLB and teams continue to lose money in Japan.

“The finances and the situation with NPB right now is little more precarious,” Small said. “The Mainichi Shimbun just reported that the NPB office lost ¥60 million this year and this is the fourth year in a row that they lost money. All 12 of the Japanese teams, according to the Mainichi, lost money. I think the economy and the way the NPB is conducting its business has a huge effect on overall profits in the NPB.

“I’m not saying we’re good they’re bad, we’re right, they’re wrong,” Small said. “What I’m doing is laying this out to really show the differences between the way we market and the way the NPB markets.”

While its easy to balk at some of the ticket prices around the majors, the marketing teams of the league’s 30 clubs work hard to give fans a reason to want to come to a game. Most stadiums provide enough activities to keep the whole family happy and many teams go the extra mile in order to provide a comfortable fan experience.

“We’re going to market a 3-hour entertainment experience for a consumer,” Small said. “We’re in the entertainment business. I’m not sure if the NPB looks at it in that way.

“We have a 3-hour opportunity to entertain fans. We control everything in that process, except for two things: the score of the game and the weather.

“Everything else we can control. We can control how hot the food is; we can control the entertainment going on in the stadium; we can control how easy it is to buy a ticket; promote our players, make sure that they (the fans) understand how special our players are, we control all that.

“The end result is an opportunity for fans to come back. We need repeat business.

“We’re just like an airline, we’re just like a hotel. If a plane leaves tonight from Narita with an empty seat, Japan Airlines can never sell that seat again. It’s gone. We’re the same way. If we don’t sell a ticket to a (Milwaukee) Brewers game on Thursday, that seat goes empty. Maybe we can get you to come Friday, but we never sell Thursday’s ticket.”

Then again, MLB teams are run to make money. Other than winning, making money is the endgame in the U.S. and Canada.

“I’m not sure that NPB has taken that same way of thinking,” Small said. “As you know, the name on the jersey is a corporation that owns a baseball team. I believe there’s a disincentive to make money. I don’t believe it’s in the best interests of that club to try to make money. Because if they lose money, the parent company will write that off as an advertising expense.

“So what you have for the most part in Japanese baseball is this mentality, and I’m sure many read it last year, when a president of an NPB team says in an internal meeting, which got leaked, that ‘fans are like carp, they’ll eat what we feed them.’ ”

“As a sports marketer, that makes me angry. Because they’re not carp, they’re your lifeblood. If you don’t have fans, you don’t have a job.”

Small insisted that MLB isn’t looking to take over in Asia and hopes Japanese baseball can regain its footing.

“We (MLB) care about Japanese baseball being strong because we need to grow the pie,” Small said. “We benefit from that pie.

“The NPB is not our rival. As a matter of fact, we look at them as our partners. The rival and the problem for us are video games or soccer. Things that kids can do other than participating in baseball. We think it’s great for a kid to have a Yomiuri Giants cap and a Milwaukee Brewers shirt. The problem is if they have a David Beckham shirt, or if they’re not into sports and they’re playing video games.”

There was hope for change after former Japanese Ambassador to the United States, Ryozo Kato was named the NPB’s commissioner in 2008. Kato’s initial years have been largely uneventful as instead of dealing with one collective body wanting to improve the game, he’s dealing with 12 separate entities.

“Right now, the commissioner doesn’t have as much authority as he should,” Murakami said. “It’s rather the 12 professional teams are ahead of the commissioner and they don’t give up much authority. In America, for example, they gather the owners for owner’s meetings and if there are any mistakes by an owner, then the commissioner would take a stand.

“Here in Japan it’s totally different. The pyramid in any league should be topped by the commissioner. But the 12 teams do have a higher ranking here in Japanese baseball.”

Murakami also called on the players to play their role in the way the system works.

“I think the Japanese players lack discipline now,” Murakami said. “They’re very spoiled. “I want them to be much more serious about what they do here. They need to have a certain mindset.”