Japanese baseball at a crossroads

Whither goes Japanese professional baseball? That question must have come to the minds of many Japanese when they heard last week the news that officials of two professional baseball clubs, the Kintetsu Buffaloes and the Orix BlueWave, have reached a basic agreement to merge the teams. The news came in the third month of red-hot competition for the championship of the Central League and the Pacific League. Spokesmen for other teams declined comment on the news, as if they had expected it all along.

Mr. Tsuneo Watanabe, owner of the Yomiuri Giants and chairman of the conference of professional baseball club owners, reacted coolly, saying he was hoping to hear the views of other officials at a meeting in July. Mr. Watanabe had raised strong objections to Kintetsu’s earlier proposal to sell the naming rights for the “Buffaloes.” Mr. Watanabe’s conflicting reactions stirred speculation about possible behind-the-scenes moves in professional baseball.

Since early this year, rumors have been rampant about reorganizing the two leagues and 12 teams in Japanese professional baseball into one league and 10 clubs. According to the rumors, four of the six PL teams would be merged — Kintetsu and Orix as well as the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks and the Chiba Lotte Marines — to form two teams and that a single-league system would be restored.

Earlier this year, financially troubled Kintetsu had announced a plan to sell the naming rights for the Buffaloes but withdrew it soon afterward. Kintetsu then announced that its annual deficit amounted to 4 billion yen. These untimely developments encouraged some informed people to suspect behind-the-scenes moves in the world of pro baseball.

Orix, formerly Orient Lease Co., bought the Hankyu Braves team in 1988 and named it the BlueWave. Although the team won Pacific League championships, it failed to produce profits. It gave the parent company good publicity, but little more.

The latest merger agreement indicates that Japanese professional baseball does not provide lucrative revenue for all clubs. Many people may enjoy viewing games broadcast on television, but there are not enough fans going to the ballparks to bring profits to all 12 clubs.

The PL is expected to study whether it can survive with five teams from next season (an even number of franchises is preferred for balance in a professional baseball league). In this connection, Daiei’s moves are interesting, since its parent company — a supermarket chain operator — is reported in financial trouble. The team could be targeted for merger.

Revisions of the baseball labor agreement to help those players who could lose their jobs through restructuring are reportedly being considered, giving credence to reports that the PL will be abolished and a single-league system restored.

There is a possibility, albeit remote, that financially troubled PL teams will put themselves up for sale or give up the business one by one. CL teams are also in difficulty. Only the Giants, and perhaps the Hanshin Tigers, are considered financially sound. It is clear that Japanese professional baseball is at a crossroads financially amid rampant speculation about mergers.

There is little talk about pro-baseball officials conducting serious discussions about team management. It has been argued that troubled teams are not doing enough to turn around their finances. A look at the history of professional baseball, however, makes clear that the PL, which lacks a counterpart for the popular Giants, has its financial limits.

Although the PL attracted an average 24,000 spectators per game last year (compared with 32,000 for the CL), it still failed to show profits. Only the Baseball Commissioner’s office can play a leading role in developing comprehensive business strategies not only to attract spectators but also to sell broadcasting and souvenir sales rights.

Major U.S. professional sports — Major League Baseball, American football, basketball and ice hockey — have survived through profit redistribution. The MLB organization sells national broadcast and souvenir marketing rights to individual teams. It also sets individual team limits for total player pay to minimize differences between teams and to balance team strength. The organization then makes followup efforts to correct imbalances that may develop between teams.

Japanese professional baseball should establish a long-term goal for itself in the tradition of the “100-year vision” of professional soccer’s J-League. Baseball Commissioner Yasuchika Negoro has an important role to play in this matter so as not to disappoint fans.