Funding gap puts NBL on unequal footing in drive to attract fans

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

This fall, the National Basketball League proudly launched as Japan’s new top hoop circuit. But it has also been ridiculed by naysayers as simply a rebranding of its predecessor — the Japan Basketball League — with its content practically the same.

But if you look into the details, the NBL does have something new. Perhaps the biggest change is that each club has to run its home games and earn its own profits, instead of being looked after by the league.

Fair enough. That, in theory, brings more professionalism and necessity to sell tickets to make money to run your own club.

But are the teams all in the same boat in that regard?

The NBL, a half-pro, half-industrial league, consists of five clubs that are backed by big companies such as Toyota Motors, Mitsubishi Electric and Hitachi, and seven professional clubs that are not. And it seems a little difficult to believe that they have an equal need to sell tickets.

Levanga Hokkaido guard/forward Takehiko Orimo perhaps knows best. The 43-year-old was a long-time Toyota Motors Alvark star shooter before he landed at a pro team, Rera Kamuy Hokkaido (predecessor of Levanga), in 2007.

Orimo confessed that he didn’t care a bit about how to attract fans to the arenas when he put on a Toyota jersey. But now, playing for a local pro team in the northern island, his mind-set has made a total turnaround.

“(The league) has got to change from now on,” Orimo said of the NBL and its role to boost the popularity of the sport. “To me, it was a little too late (to start this league). But putting it aside, we, as players, are going to do our best to make the game more major. And to achieve that, the league and (managing) companies have to be desperate, too.”

Unfortunately, the league has already been struck with a cruel reality early in its first season.

Through last weekend, four professional teams (Link Tochigi Brex, Levanga, Chiba Jets and Wakayama Trians) occupied the top five in the average home attendances in the 12-club league. The Aisin SeaHorses, who are third on the list, are the only corporate club to crack it.

The Hitachi Sunrockers are perhaps the industrial squad that is struggling the most, and have failed to draw even 1,000 fans per home contest (982), 11th place on the list (The Brex have had 1,919 per home contest).

It cannot be said that the corporate clubs have not made an effort to bring fans to the games going simply by attendance figures alone. Other things might factor into it — for example, teams based in populated areas and cities like Tokyo tend to struggle to draw fans.

Yet Orimo believes there are stark gaps between the corporate clubs and pro teams in terms of their level of eagerness, because for the company teams, whether they get money through their basketball activities is not a matter of life and death.

Orimo, who became president of the club two years ago after Rera Kamuy had to fold due to financial woes, insists that each and every member of his club, including the players, understands the value of selling tickets for their home games because it directly affects the team’s funds.

“We have to sell as many tickets as we can,” Orimo said. “Otherwise, we’ll collapse and we won’t be able to pay salaries for the players. So we have to always think how we can make the fans come to the arenas. It’s our responsibility to sell each and every ticket. So we are desperate.

“Until a season begins, you don’t have any profits (out of ticket sales). Then, we get covered by our sponsors and we can hold our games. Then, we can finally think of how to earn our own profits out of the tickets we sell.”

Toshiba Brave Thunders center Nick Fazekas believes games now have to be more attractive.

“It puts a little bit more pressure on us,” said the American, who has NBA experiences. “Fans want to see wins, so we hope to be on the wins in a lot of our home games and then everybody comes out and supports us, and we can get the fans we are supposed to get.”

But as far as how to sell tickets, it should be the management rather than the players who have to be more aware.

Orimo sends a message that the industrial teams have to be as serious as the pro teams, otherwise there’s no future for the NBL and for already-floudering Japanese basketball.

“We, professional teams, are going to take the lead (in promoting the NBL),” he said. “But as long as they’re in this league, the corporate teams need to be desperate, too.”

The NBL set an attendance goal of 2,000 fans per game in the first campaign. None of the clubs has reached the figure so far.