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Time for bj-league to make serious push for recognition

by Ed Odeven

In nearly two months, the bj-league will begin its seventh season. The fact that the league still exists is, well, an accomplishment; many upstart circuits don’t survive this long.

But, as we make an honest assessment of the situation, this must be said: The fledgling basketball circuit is at the crossroads.

Is the league satisfied to remain a minor player, a niche sport, in this nation despite having teams in 19 of Japan’s 47 prefectures, and more on the way in 2012-13?

Or does it have serious designs on entering the mainstream of Japanese sports, including Nippon Professional Baseball and the J.League?

The bj-league’s entire landscape — and the JBL’s relevance — has completely changed since JBL defectors Saitama Broncos and Niigata Albirex BB set up shop with the Osaka Evessa, Oita HeatDevils, Tokyo Apache and Sendai 89ers for the inaugural 2005-06 campaign.

Unfortunately, time after time, the bj-league has failed to properly promote itself, make a big splash when there are opportunities to do so (while the NPB and J.League are on winter break, for instance), or do so consistently with continuous coverage. Even its own website is often days or weeks late in posting news.

How is that acceptable?

And if the league doesn’t even bother to publish its own news, how can it expect legitimate news companies to take the time to make it a priority?

Example: Important league news, such as the April death of former Oita HeatDevils co-owner and league business partner Vince Rawl, who had shelled out millions of dollars to help the league, remains untold by the league office. In fact, he’s still listed as a league adviser on the league’s lone English page on its website; it’s an inadequate effort, but that’s another column in itself.

Another example: The sale of the Tokyo Apache to a group led by American businessman Michael Lerch in June 2010 was never officially announced.

Is the league office lazy? Xenophobic? Caught up in its never-ending obsession with expansion?

Actually, I just think the league lacks proper direction and someone stressing what needs to be prioritized in a timely fashion. The league fails to recognize that people pay attention to its simpleton ways and get turned off by them.

Exhibit A: Former Apache forward Jeremy Tyler, the first active bj-league player to be drafted by an NBA team, should’ve created positive buzz for the bj-league around the world and in this nation’s mass media in June.

It never happened.

Why? As expected, the bj-league did the bare minimum, concocting a press release excluding anyone’s comments and failing to issue a statement from commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi or anybody from the league office about the significance of Tyler’s accomplishment.

A junior high school newspaper reporter could have told you that Kawachi’s comments about Tyler should’ve been published in every daily newspaper in Japan. Instead, the opportunity was wasted, because someone at the league office failed to connect the dots.

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For the past five seasons, this reporter has dutifully covered the bj-league and traveled to games throughout Japan, including in Tokyo, Saitama Prefecture, Kyoto, Osaka, Okinawa, Akita and Sendai, as well as Beppu, Oita Prefecture, Takamatsu and Niigata. And not once have I felt that national media coverage of the league had reached its potential or been done in a way that could be described as “exhaustive.”

Few, if any, real improvements have been made by the league office to assist the media or anyone who wants to follow the league on a regular basis.

Example: Archived box scores are posted on the league website with a statement issued by each team’s coach. There are, however, no quotations from players. There have never been archived comments from players to go along with these box scores. Nor does the league collaborate with teams to ensure that these quotes are posted someplace else.

A player’s perspective, any player’s, is a valuable tool to promote the league. These remarks give all journalists and bloggers information to add to their reports; they are also historical snapshots about the immediate aftermath of a game. You could even look at it this way: It’s free publicity for the league, and there’s no excuse for the league not to require each team to have a few interns and staff members get a few quotes from a handful of players after each game. (Repeated requests for this have been ignored by the league office.)

This is the most basic level of sports media and its necessary collaboration with team and league personnel. Yet the league fails to fulfill the most basic level of professional game-day services, as well as throughout the rest of the year.

* * *

With the addition of the Akita Northern Happinets, Miyazaki Shining Suns and Shimane Susanoo Magic to the fold in 2010 and the Chiba Jets, Yokohama B-Corsairs, Shinshu Brave Warriors and Iwate Big Bulls for the upcoming season, there ought to be a sense of urgency in everything the league office does to spread the word about its 19 teams (not counting the Apache, who have not been labeled “defunct” by the league office, but for all intents and purposes have gone away), all of whom have never received sustained coverage in anything other than the local newspaper or TV station.

I don’t, however, expect the league to make any significant improvements. The basic theme of the league’s operations since the fall of 2005 has been this: We’ll play games in whatever venue we can get, and everything else is secondary.

Quality control is not a priority. How can it be when a league’s expansion rate greatly exceeds anything resembling the most generic definition of logic?

So can the league turn a corner and transform itself into a serious professional league?

Sure, but it would take a serious commitment to doing things in a professional way.

The evidence all around us suggests otherwise, though. But voices of reason are never too late.

It’s time for movers and shakers to rattle the bj-league to its very core and propose a series of can’t-refuse — no-brainer —- tactics that will force the league to act like a major sports league. After all, by its own insistence, it has outgrown its humble beginnings as a minor circuit.

Two-time MVP Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa has repeatedly expressed the view that the league has not reached its potential in any initiative it has undertaken. But he has empathy for the league’s financial situation.

“The challenges for the bj-league lay with merely staying alive,” Washington told Hoop Scoop last season. “While growth is good, especially with the outreach to youth development, a long and bumpy road ahead will prevail if the bj-league does not get some help.”

In other words, wealthy corporations like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Honda need to be brought on board as league-wide sponsors. That time is now.

But does the league have an effective message or a clear strategy to convince those sponsors that the league has a fighting chance for current or longterm success? Or that their association with the bj-league can be mutually beneficial?

That remains to be seen.

This, again, is why the seventh season will be a critical one for the league. There are nine foreign coaches — Chiba’s Eric Gardow, Iwate’s Vlasios Vlaikidis, Niigata’s Matt Garrison, Osaka’s Ryan Blackwell, Saitama’s Dean Murray, Sendai’s Bob Pierce, Shiga’s Alan Westover, Shimane’s Zeljko Pavlicevic and Yokohama’s Reggie Geary — among the league’s 19 bench bosses now. Almost 100 foreigners will be on opening-day rosters.

Diversity can be a big part of the league’s selling point.

An interesting, exciting mixture of leadership and playing styles can be a big plus for the league — that is, if the league can finally figure out a way to market itself to the masses. To do this, it’ll take sophistication, smarter work and a bold vision that involves fans, sponsors and the media.