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Proposed NPB expansion appears unlikely

by Wayne Graczyk

The office of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a suggestion on May 22 that Japanese professional baseball should expand from its current 12 teams to 16. Prospective locations for four new franchises were listed, and the idea would be to help further economic growth in some of the more rural areas of the country. However, can a 33.3 percent expansion be successful — or would it be a disaster?

As pointed out many times in this column, Japanese baseball has followed the North American major leagues in several aspects of the game, but expansion has not been one of them.

As a youngster, I grew up watching major league baseball with 16 teams; eight each in the American and National Leagues. Then MLB added teams in 1961, 1962, 1969, 1977, 1993 and 1997, reaching the current number of 30 AL and NL franchises. Japanese baseball, meanwhile, has stayed with 12 clubs since the 1950s with little or no mention of expansion.

Sure, the map of Japan team locations has been spread out, especially in the Pacific League where, in 1988, all six teams were in the Kanto and Kansai areas.

Moves of the Nankai Hawks from Osaka to Fukuoka in 1989 and the Nippon Ham Fighters from Tokyo to Sapporo in 2004 and the placing of the Rakuten Eagles in Sendai in 2005 have proven to be successful, at least in terms of better attendance figures and winning teams.

How many other Japanese cities, though, have the population and infrastructure to support a full-time franchise ballclub, especially one starting from scratch? In the articles about the prime minister’s urging expansion, the four cities or areas named were Shizuoka, Okinawa, Shikoku and northern Shinetsu along the Japan Sea coast.

All the above are places where chiho or “countryside” regular season games are played each year with varied attendance figures and fan interest, depending on which teams are playing and if dates are on weekdays or weekends.

In May of 2013, for example, the Yakult Swallows (as home team) and Hanshin Tigers played a three-game series in Matsuyama, Ehime Prefecture, on Shikoku Island. Attendances were listed as 10,036 on a Friday night, 20,115 on Saturday night and 18,207 on Sunday afternoon.

Last July, the Tigers were the home team for a pair of games in Naha, Okinawa, hosting the Chunichi Dragons. In a new 30,000-seat ballpark, they drew only 15,714 for a Tuesday night game and 16,355 on Wednesday evening. This compared with the more than 40,000 fans who would have showed up each night if the games had been played at Hanshin Koshien Stadium.

If Japanese baseball were to expand, the first place to go for me would be Niigata where the beautiful Hard-Off Eco Stadium awaits with its 30,000 seats, excellent facilities, 2,000 car parking spaces and a huge area from which to draw a potential fan base. Moreover, it is just a little more than two hours by bullet train from Tokyo.

Next, I would go to Matsuyama which also has a nice place to play in the 30,000-seat Botchan Stadium, and a team there could theoretically represent all of Shikoku. It is a short flight from Osaka, and there is ferry service from Hiroshima.

Shizuoka is conveniently located on the Tokaido Shinkansen line, exactly between Tokyo and Nagoya, and its Kusanagi Stadium has been refurbished.

Naha’s Okinawa Cellular Stadium is nice and new, and there is a monorail station adjacent to the ball park, but the city itself has a population, according to Wikipedia, of only 315,954.

Obviously, every trip in and out of Naha would require a flight for the home and visiting teams.

The Yokohama Baystars will play the Yomiuri Giants there on July 8-9, so we’ll see what kind of crowds show up.

Expanding by two teams to make 14 would not be feasible, as having two leagues of seven teams each would cause havoc in scheduling, and you can be sure the existing clubs would not want to lose home game dates against the popular Giants and Tigers.

Adding four teams — or even two — would also bring up the questions of whether there is enough talent in the player pool to go around and maintain a high level of play and what individuals or corporations might step up to apply for ownership.

The key, though, to the success of Japanese baseball franchises, would be to follow Major League Baseball’s model of revenue sharing. All the teams have got to get together and establish a policy to divide the income from the sales of goods, broadcast rights and other sources.

Afterward, maybe expansion could be considered but, unfortunately, I do not see this happening any time soon. If 12 teams can’t unite on a better economic model, how can we expect 16 teams to do so?

So, should Japanese baseball add more teams? If expansion were to benefit all of NPB, that would be great, but there is just too much doubt, and we’ll see if this discussion goes any further.

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Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com