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Hawks owner Son lauds club’s business acumen

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Staff Writer

Masayoshi Son, the founder and CEO of SoftBank Group Corp., is rich. And his telecom and technology company has grown into a giant.

But the 58-year-old insists that his Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks baseball team doesn’t rely on its parent company’s financial power to acquire star players.

Son said that, unlike some other teams whose debts are absorbed by their parent companies, the Pacific League ballclub has made an effort to earn its own money through its baseball activities.

“Sometimes people say that the SoftBank Hawks are an extremely rich team that spends (to acquire players) more than the (Yomiuri) Giants used to,” said Son, speaking at a Tokyo news conference as his SoftBank Group was introduced as the top partner for the B. League, Japan’s new men’s basketball league, on Thursday in Tokyo.

“But every Pacific League team had been in the red every single year since the league started (in 1950). No one made a profit, that’s what we were told. But the SoftBank Hawks, though we were in the red for the first few years, have been in the black solely with the profits from our ballclub management, not receiving any subsidy from our parent company.

“We’re trying to return the profit we earned from our club management to our staff and players, so it’s not true that we are making the team rich through the resources of our parent company.”

The Hawks have indeed been known to recruit players that have had success at other clubs, including Seiichi Uchikawa, Lee Dae-ho and Daisuke Matsuzaka, and have become one of the most competitive teams in Japan. They have captured the Japan Series championship three times — in 2011, 2014 and 2015 — since SoftBank bought the club in 2005.

But Son said the club has been active in player development as well.

“The Hawks have their san-gun (the second tier of their farm system — no other team except the Giants have one in NPB), and we are trying to grow young players, including ones that weren’t even drafted,” Son said.

The Hawks do have the capability to recoup their spend on players through their club management. The club had a total of 600,000 home fans for the whole of 1986, but drew 2,535,877 to their home games in 2015, the third-best figure in the 12-club NPB, just behind Yomiuri and the Hanshin Tigers.

Also, the Hawks are one of the most profitable teams. They brought in revenue of ¥2.7 billion in 2013, topping the Giants — the most famous team in Japan.

“In terms of our club management, things like our merchandise sales, food sales and fan club have gone well. We’ve done well attracting fans and our club is run so well. That’s nice,” said Son, who has publicly proclaimed that he intends to make the Hawks the best team in the world.

Professional baseball teams have often been considered as billboards for their parent companies, but Son doesn’t believe in that notion. He thinks running a team can be a business on its own.

“When you raise the management level, you can have a positive spiral, which means that if you develop your team, it will give your team a chance to make a profit. That’s what we’ve felt has happened with the Hawks,” Son said.

“That being said, the management of teams in Europe and the United States is becoming more professional and that raises their value. I think Japan will be like that going forward.”

Son joked that when he shared his idea to buy the Hawks with his company executives, most of them firmly opposed it. But Son’s gut feeling looks to have paid off.

He said that, according to company calculations, running the Hawks was worth between ¥40 billion and ¥50 billion in advertising every year.

“Almost every day, the media, including NHK, are showing our SoftBank Hawks, with the company name,” Son said. “That has raised the recognition level of our brand across the nation.”