Merger talks going slowly

by Kaz Nagatsuka

Staff Writer

Japan Basketball Association officials said that they would actively keep discussing how to overcome the differences between the nation’s top two leagues in order to establish a new professional hoops circuit in two years.

Hopefully they will really be able to unite the two circuits, the NBL and the bj-league, because so many basketball media and fans still don’t believe that they can make it happen.

On Thursday afternoon, the JBA held a news conference to provide an update for the first time publicly on where it is in terms of progress for the establishment of the new pro league, which is scheduled to begin for the 2016-17 season.

JBA president Yasuhiko Fukatsu, NBL Japan president Mitsuru Maruo and bj-league commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi stood at the podium to address approximately 50 media members, who easily packed a meeting room at the JBA office in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward.

Fukatsu, who officially took the helm of the JBA last month after serving as its acting president, explained that promotion committee leaders, who include the three at the news conference, had meetings to outline the new league’s grand designs on June 27, July 3 and last Friday.

He added that the promotion members group would transform into a new league organizing committee, including a few more members from club representatives, like Shinji Shimada, president of NBL’s Chiba Jets, and Teruhisa Nakamura, president of the bj-league’s Sendai 89ers.

The new committee held its first meeting before the news conference, and talked about various things, including what they would have to debate about and a meeting schedule.

Fukatsu said that the committee would regularly hold meetings, such as once a week, until the end of September.

The JBA was given a severe warning — an ultimatum, really — by FIBA, the sport’s world governing body, in the spring, that it would lose its international qualifications if it didn’t pave the way for a unification of the NBL (the JBL’s successor) and the bj-league into one entity by the end of October.

“We would like to come to an agreement to form one league by the end of October,” Fukatsu said. “And we hope to report that to FIBA.”

While the majority of the potential issues between the sides have to be discussed from now on, they announced that there are already some things that they have agreed upon at this point.

For instance, the new league, which will combine the NBL, bj-league and NBDL (the JBL2 successor), will be in a single group , according to the initial plan, with no secondary divisions. All together, there are 44 current clubs in those three circuits, including 22 bj-league teams.

Also, there will be interleague exhibitions this season and moving forward in the run-up to 2016. As of Thursday, several of those clubs, including Niigata Albirex BB (bj-league) vs. Mitsubishi Diamond Dolphins (NBL) and Link Tochigi Brex (NBL) vs. Akita Northern Happinets (bj-league), are scheduled to play in September.

According to the rough outline discussed at the news conference, there will be more exhibitions between the leagues next year.

Meanwhile, one big obstacle that could prove to be a thorn in the side of the process is the presence of the major-company teams, who have long existed on the Japan basketball scene as its core members. It’s been said that those company clubs, who have basically run their hoop teams for social gatherings and employees’ entertainment, have hindered the path to create a true professional league (and that is why the bj-league was formed).

A day before the news conference, a shocking article appeared in the Yomiuri Shimbun. The newspaper reported that the five core company teams of the NBL, including the reigning NBL champ Toshiba Brave Thunders, Toyota Alvark and Mitsubishi, have rejected the offer to play in the new pro circuit.

The NBL quickly dismissed the report, saying it was not accurate on its website on the same day, and Maruo repeatedly denied it at the Thursday news conference as well.

“While we were working to get everybody involved, we saw the article,” Maruo said with a bitter smile. “Frankly, we are confused.”

According to Fukatsu, when the JBA revealed that it would start up the pro league in 2016, he and Maruo talked to those company clubs about it and received some positive words from them.

“Each team would understand the pro league,” Fukatsu said. “They were like, ‘We would definitely like to join it’ and asked us to give them a chance to do so.”

But Kawachi, who bolted from the conservative JBL to launch the professional bj-league in 2004 (the six-team league began play the next year), said that they would start discussing numerous details for the new league on its organizing committee from this point on, and it was a little too early to comment on what it would look like.

“We haven’t talked about anything,” Kawachi said.

“Everything will start from this point on.”

Kawachi predicted that there would be so many complicated issues that the entities would have to work out. But, he said, their time — both until the end of October and the start of the new league in 2016 — is limited. And Kawachi didn’t seem too optimistic that they would agree on everything.

“We have so many problems,” he said. “But we’ve got to put it in a good place when it starts in 2016.”

Four years ago, those entities formed a committee aimed at starting a new league in 2013, which led to the creation of the NBL. But that plan was rejected as it wasn’t a professional league and the bj-league would not participate in it.