Kawabuchi draws on J. League success to push for Japan basketball’s transformation

by

Staff Writer

When the J. League was being set up in the early 1990s, its chairman, Saburo Kawabuchi, said that he heard a lot of pessimistic voices about its formation. But the Japan Football Association stuck with its plans and started the league.

With that experience to draw on, Kawabuchi suggested this to Japanese basketball executives who have similar opinions: Develop a Copernican revolution in their heads.

To spell it out, Kawabuchi insists that if they are content with the status quo or think making the sport grow on a much larger business scale isn’t achievable, they need to toss those ideas out the window; otherwise, he said, they’re not going to change anything.

“In the case of soccer (J. League), everybody was originally saying that there’s no way it was going to be successful,” Kawabuchi said. “They were like, ‘How could you order (teams) to make stadiums that could have more than 15,000 fans?’ But I thought that if you have a Copernican revolution mind-set, meaning changing your way of thinking by 180 degrees, it was going to be possible, and we actually did so.”

Last Thursday, Kawabuchi, co-chair of the Japan 2024 Task Force, shared his bold plans for the new professional basketball league that is slated to begin play in the 2016-17 season with representatives from the NBL, NBDL and bj-league.

The Japan Basketball Association was suspended by FIBA, the sport’s world governing body, last fall, and unifying the men’s leagues into one organized hierarchy is one of the conditions that must be met for the ban to be lifted.

Among the plans Kawabuchi revealed, the inaugural J. League chairman weighed in on the need for bigger home arenas. At news conferences in January and last week, he said that each team that would play in the new league should eventually have one home arena with a seating capacity for 5,000 spectators.

And when they heard the words that came out of Kawabuchi’s mouth, it seemed that the majority of the club executives’ eyes were wide open with astonishment because in both the NBL and the bj-league, their average attendance figures are well below the 5,000 mark.

Through Sunday, the 13-team NBL and 22-team bj-league had attendance averages of 1,276 and 1,532 fans per game, respectively, this season.

Kawabuchi told the club executives to talk to local governments to establish stronger bonds with them, and that it could help them get support to build bigger venues.

“When we started the J. League, we would go to see all the heads, such as the mayors (of the franchise towns of the clubs),” Kawabuchi said. “I wonder if the (Japan Basketball) association and clubs have really done it. If not, that’s out of the question.”

But unlike in some sports-crazed countries such as the United States, Japanese citizens tend to be more opposed to spending public subsidies and taxes to construct new sports arenas and stadiums.

Toshiya Osaki, president of the bj-league’s Shimane Susanoo Magic, was one of the executives who expressed concerns over the arena issue among others topics, such as eliminating the salary cap and setting a minimum salary at around ¥10 million that Kawabuchi proposed.

Osaki wrote in his blog that in the meeting of the b-league’s team presidents, which followed Kawabuchi’s announcement of the new league’s plans, that the mood was “very severe.” He said most of them seemed at a loss for future plans as if they didn’t really know what to do.

During last week’s meetings, there also were occasions when the presidents of the Shinshu Brave Warriors and Levanga Hokkaido told Kawabuchi that it was important for their teams to host home contests at various arenas inside their respective prefectures in order to receive support from all over the region.

Meanwhile, some clubs have already taken action. The Bambitious Nara, a second-year bj-league team, have begun a signature-collecting campaign on their website to achieve support for building a 5,000-seat arena.

Also, the bj-league’s Osaka Evessa announced they signed a 10-year contract to use the 7,000-seat Maishima Arena (it has already been booked by others for the next fiscal year, so they are going to start using it for their home games starting in the 2016-17 season).

In Japan, pro basketball has greater potential for teams and as a business, Kawabuchi reminded the gathered hoop officials. He said that he’d attended an NBL game between the Toshiba Brave Thunders and Chiba Jets at Kawasaki’s Todoroki Arena, which was played in front of only 600 fans or so. But he added that the game was entertaining and that the leagues and clubs would have to take advantage of it.

“The game was more exciting than I’d expected,” he said. “I thought that if this was watched by 5,000 fans, they’d think they want to come back to see it.”

Many of the men’s basketball leagues in other countries, including Germany, Spain, Italy, China, the Philippines and South Korea, have at least 3,000 spectators per game.

“Basketball is played while there’s no baseball and soccer …,” Kawabuchi said, smiling. “So I believe it has a lot of potential and is in a good position. That’s why I want to make it successful.”