The Chiba Jets’ recent defection announcement from the bj-league to play in the re-branded JBL in 2013-14 triggered two reactions. And the first one is shared by most people in Japan’s basketball community.
Reaction No. 1: Chiba who?
The team has barely registered a blip on the radar; few people around the nation even know the team exists. After all, it has only had one season — an easily forgettable 18-34 campaign — in the books.
Reaction No. 2: Once again the bj-league showed its lack of institutional control by giving the Jets the green light to bolt for, ahem, alleged greener pastures.
Chiba was not assessed a fine for its betrayal of the upstart league.
This, of course, sets a big, bad precedent: If the Jets aren’t punished for quitting, the next team with designs on bolting for the Japan Basketball Association-backed league can get away with the same nonsense without suffering from a cash penalty. (Charge them 1 billion yen to switch leagues, is the right policy, I say. In fact, that rule should have been in place already; someone should have been smart enough to jot it down from the beginning.)
Which brings us back to the bj-league’s modus operandi. After seven seasons, with games played from Tohoku to the Ryukyu islands, this statement accurately sums up the league’s reality: 95 percent or more of the general public knows almost nothing about the league. The odds of a random individual on the street being able to name three bj-league All-Star players is practically nonexistent.
So what has non-stop expansion done since 2005?
The bj-league has created an institutional monolith that still doesn’t resonate with the general public despite widespread participation in the sport in all age groups and many teams being based in places where pro basketball is the only game in town.
Lack of leadership is problem No. 1 for the bj-league, and it’s compounded by the belief that continuous expansion can solve — and mask — its problems.
The desertion of the Chiba Jets really isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things. The team’s mediocre attendance in 2011-12, usage of numerous gyms (no true home court; a league-wide problem, actually) and lack of longevity put the team in the category of unknowns.
Will the Jets have any chances for real success in the JBL?
Well, they’ll need to line up some big-time sponsors and spend lots of cash to compete against the Toyota Motors Alvark, Aisin Sea Horses and other established stalwarts. Otherwise, here’s my prediction: The Jets are destined to the short, sorry shelf life that has doomed many JBL clubs.
Looking back on the issue, a hoop insider shed some light on the realities of the JBL’s shaky foundation in a September 2009 interview.
“Since I have been involved with Japan basketball, 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 mentioned 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.”
You now have an accurate picture of the JBL’s problems since the bubble burst.
The bj-league, meanwhile, continues to operate as though expansion is a cure-all for its proven inability to make sufficient amounts of money to operate as a respectable business.
Expansion serves as a diversion — a lame distraction, really — from the everyday problems that plague the league at all levels: no stability (if more than half the coaches don’t change each offseason, call it a completely stunning development), awful marketing and mismanagement brought about never-ending expansion.
Many folks who have followed the league from the beginning have been turned off by its arrogant, aloof and failing leadership and the watered-down product it has created.
Or as one longtime source put it: “I have not been following the bj-league (recently) as it has left a very bad impression. It’s like the league itself has no respect for the game. They are using good ol’ boy Japanese business practices to run the league and that will be their downfall … see Olympus, Sony and the others.
“There is no transparency; lack of leadership and future planning; sneaky backdoor B.S. that prohibits the league from achieving its true potential. It’s like people are too busy worried about their job titles rather than truly promoting and growing the sport of basketball here in Japan,” he added.
Though the JBL has resisted forming a pro league for decades and will re-emerge with a “new JBL” in 2013-14, the basic framework of the new league isn’t expect to be a radical departure from the corporate leagues of yore. Even so, the bj-league’s pro model has done nothing to inspire the JBL or to provide useful hints on how to operate as a pro league.
“That’s why the JBL has no need to join the bj-league. … The corporates know that the bj-league is not stable,” the source said. “The reason they are expanding so much is to collect the intro fees from the new teams. But as far as growing the league and making professional league, they don’t have a damn clue.
“As a person that loves the sport, it’s truly embarrassing. I personally know some people that would like to buy a team here, but I have advised them not to and to try to talk some sense into the bj-league. Then, if that doesn’t work, instead look at starting a true professional league.
“They have the financial backing to fund a new league from scratch. I have not introduced them to the league yet…as I am just sitting on the sidelines now watching what happens.”
The league’s true colors were revealed in the spring, when two-time MVP Lynn Washington of the Osaka Evessa was arrested for suspicion of smuggling drugs into Japan. After an 18-day stint in Osaka Prefectural Police custody, he was exonerated of all charges and yet neither the team nor the league issued a statement saying it would welcome him back to play.
Furthermore, by every reasonable analysis, the league did nothing to display transparency or honesty in its botched handling of drug testing and reporting of those results (15-17 players failed drug tests, several league sources said, but the league remains hush-hush on the issue) in the immediate aftermath of Washington’s arrest.
“The Lynn Washington situation truly upset me,” the source said, reflecting on The Japan Times’ in-depth coverage of the case. “An innocent man being forced to retire, a week after he says to you that he only needs a week to get back in shape, then comes out and retires. Ridiculous.”
With each passing season, the bj-league grows bigger and more farcical. It all starts at the top. The Chiba Jets’ non-penalized decision to leave the league is just one more example of institutional ineptitude that overwhelms its daily operations.
Expect more of the same.