YOKOHAMA – A professional sports team has essentially two goals: Trying to win a championship and promoting the team to attract fans.
While the first is always unpredictable as luck plays a part, the latter can be achieved by persistent and strategic efforts.
Promotions are a primary focus for the newly revamped Yokohama BayStars under their new ownership, mobile portal and e-commerce company DeNA Co., Ltd., this year. While continuing what has worked in the past on the one hand, they are not afraid to attempt new strategies.
“Look back at the poster on the wall,” said Ken Maezawa, the Central League club’s senior director of business operations, pointing at a 2012 version of the team poster during a recent interview with The Japan Times at its offices.
“You see our key words — ‘Succession and Innovation.’ Not that all the old ways are bad things, so while succeeding with good things from the past, you have to actively create new things. I think the key words are nicely representing our company policies. We are going to proceed our operations based on the policies.”
If you look at how the club goes about its business, you’ll notice Maezawa’s words aren’t misleading. The BayStars have enthusiastically tried to draw fans, instead of just expecting them to turn up for games since the start of this year.
One of the biggest attractions has been ticket discounts for home games. For example, the club sold 50 daily tickets that could be used for a full refund during the six-game home stand from May 1 to 6 during the big “Golden Week” holidays.
With the special ticket, purchasers would fill in evaluation sheets after the games they attended and could request how much money they wanted to get refunded from the ¥4,000 face value, depending on the results.
If Yokohama won, they could ask for a refund that was up to half price, and if it lost, they could ask for to the full amount.
The BayStars also offer other discount tickets, depending on the day of the week. Those who meet the terms get ¥2,000 off with a day ticket for the infield reserved seats as below: Tuesdays for those putting on BayStars jerseys, Wednesdays for adults ages 60 or older, Thursdays for women or men dressed up as women, Fridays for men and Saturdays for children.
Previously, Maezawa was credited for being instrumental in helping make the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters one of the most popular clubs in the Pacific League. He worked for the Fighters’ business operations department before he joined the BayStars this year.
Maezawa said that the discount tickets have helped attract the attention of casual sports fans and the general public.
In fact, Yokohama’s attendance per home game from Opening Day until the start of interleague play saw the biggest improvement — up by 15.2 percent from last season (17,715 per game) — in Nippon Professional Baseball.
“We don’t want (the media) to focus too much on it (ticket discounts), though,” Maezawa said with a bitter smile. “There are pros and cons about it, and you’ll always see a lot of hurdles in front of you when you try to create new things. But those hurdles were made based on other people’s own sense. So if we think we can jump over them, we’ll try to do so.”
Meanwhile, the club received some harsh criticism about the refundable discount tickets as well. Maezawa said, however, that Yokohama wasn’t shaken by that and he had his own thoughts about it.
“Think about it. You don’t really see stuff being sold at fixed prices, do you?” he questioned. “No, they aren’t. They are basically open prices.
“Don’t you think so? The fixed prices are fixed for whom? If you look around on the website or anything, you see very few things that are sold at fixed prices. So why not for the baseball tickets?”
Jun Kusumoto, the team’s director of public and media relations, provided further details.
“We didn’t change the ticket prices solely for business purposes, but rather for the fans,” Kusumoto said. “We would like people to understand that.”
The BayStars also think that the stadium and the surrounding areas are significant assets to attract fans and they need to make them more appealing.
Since Yokohama Stadium, which is built in Yokohama Park near Chinatown, is owned by the city and there are the local ordinances, the club can’t renovate the stadium freely. Yet the administration has been supportive of the BayStars and agreed that both sides ought to turn the stadium into a better ballpark, according to Maezawa.
“For instance, there’s a view ordinance (in Yokohama), with which (the buildings) have to be brick-like or can’t have multiple colors, and so on,” Maezawa said. “But we’re talking about those things right now, asking for a bit of deregulation.”
Nevertheless, the club already gained approval and took some steps for the promotion, including moving its official goods shop from outside JR Kannai Station, the nearest train station, to outside the stadium so the fans could stop by there more conveniently when they come to games.
Furthermore, the club is also working to make the stadium area, including the stadium itself, more like an entertainment locale, so people will visit not just to see baseball games. For example, it set up a beer garden with a big screen to show a BayStars game while bringing some semi-professional musicians outside the stadium in May.
The club is dedicated to having promotions away from the stadium as well. Back in January, it showcased a uniform-unveiling event, bringing some players and its new, high-energy skipper, Kiyoshi Nakahata, to the popular Minatomirai district.
One of the big advantages for the team is that the stadium is conveniently located in Yokohama, which is the second-largest city in Japan with more than 3.6 million residents.
Train-wise, fans can access the venue from three nearby stations: Kannai of JR Keihin Tohoku Line, Kannai on the Yokohama Municipal Subway and Nihon Odori on the Yokohama Minatomirai Railway’s Minatomirai Line.
The club has cooperated with the Yokohama Minatomirai Railway, running a pair of “BayStars Trains” which are entirely wrapped in the team colors with the logos, this year. It designated the above-mentioned three stations as “BayStars Stations,” where the starting bells are the team’s official fight music and team-related posters and boards decorate them.
“To capitalize on our great location, I think that we definitely needed to cooperate with the transportation infrastructure,” Maezawa said.
Maezawa wouldn’t specify what kind of challenges and surprises the BayStars would try to make happen in the near future, since they have not been finalized. But he made clear that the team would keep moving forward on a daily basis.
From a business standpoint, the reborn BayStars look to have shown some positive signs and appear headed in the right direction. The team’s dismal performance on the diamond is another story.
The two-time Japan Series champion BayStars, who have finished in last place in the CL for four consecutive seasons, are currently sitting in the same position in the bottom of the league standings with a 21-39-5 record through Saturday.
“None of the club officials are happy to see the team lose,” Maezawa said. “But what we do is business operations, not wins and losses. Our job is to help the team from a different angle.”