Top executives from FIBA, basketball’s world governing body, recently visited Japan for a site inspection tour of the five cities and venues that will host games here during the 2006 world championships.

News photoFlorian Wanninger, director of communications for FIBA,
speaks at a Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting in Tokyo on
Nov. 29.

During their trip, the FIBA group spoke to the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo, and discussed plans for the event featuring 24 nations from around the globe, which will be the biggest held here since soccer’s 2002 World Cup.

A total of 80 games will be played in five cities (Hamamatsu, Hiroshima, Saitama, Sapporo, Sendai) throughout the nation during the 19-day tournament (Aug. 19-Sept. 6, 2006). Japan automatically qualifies as the host country.

Unlike the FIFA World Cup of soccer in 2002, FIBA and the local organizing committee for the world championships are not expecting a huge influx of fans from overseas to attend the event.

“We are concentrating on the Japanese market,” said Florian Wanninger, FIBA’s director of communications, at the meeting on Nov. 27. “That will be our core audience. There will be fans coming from overseas, but we don’t expect them in great numbers.”

Wanninger praised the Japan 2006 organizers for their plan to hold games in different locations and smaller arenas around the country.

“We believe this an excellent size for the championships. We made a big mistake with the last world championships (in 2002), when we organized all of the games (64) in one city — Indianapolis — which is actually not that big. It was impossible to sell tickets for 64 games in one city.

“Indianapolis paid for that, and so did we, because it’s not good for an organizer to have a shortfall. Indianapolis definitely did in terms of economics. We won’t make the same mistake again.

“It is good for the sport to spread the games across Japan. What we want to do is to promote basketball here and have full arenas.”

Round-robin play will be contested in four cities with modest capacity facilities (Hamamatsu — 4,972; Hiroshima — 6,705; Sapporo — 6,180; Sendai — 6,023), with the final round being staged at Saitama Super Arena, which seats 20,679 for basketball.

Saitama has staged both NBA and NHL games in the past and is Japan’s top indoor arena.

Wanninger called Saitama Super Arena “a jewel” of a facility and said it was ideal to host the final round of this major international event.

He said FIBA is impressed by the attendance figures the Japan 2006 organizers are striving to achieve.

“The draw for the tournament will be held near the end of 2005 or beginning of 2006. This will be the tipoff for ticket sales to the event, and the local organizing committee has set a very ambitious goal to sell 80 percent of the capacity of the venues, which would be approximately 180,000 tickets.”

Wanninger, himself a former pro basketball player in Germany, emphasized the importance of the trip by the FIBA team to help ensure the championships run smoothly.

“The FIBA inspection team is here to check on infrastructure, local transport, hotels — especially team hotels — and the arenas.

“During our site visits, we are really going into details on security issues, accreditation policies, media facilities and access issues. It is a very challenging program. Following our visit we will have a clearer picture of what we are dealing with.”

Wanninger said that FIBA, which awarded the event to Japan in 1997, decided to bring the world championships back to Asia because of the worldwide popularity of the sport.

“We believe that basketball, along with soccer, are the only true global team sports. The Asian market is very important to FIBA. Japan and China are key countries for us.

“China is quite developed in terms of participation. Basketball is incredibly popular there and not just because of Yao Ming.”

Despite the significant number of people playing organized basketball in Japan, the results haven’t translated into success on the court — at least for the men — in international competition.

“According to the Japan Amateur Basketball Association, there are 600,000 registered players in Japan. On a competitive level, Japan’s men haven’t been very successful. They participated in the 1998 world championships in Athens. The last time Japan played in the Olympics was in 1976.

“It is very important to us to promote the sport here to a level where it gets the support it deserves.”

Wanninger cited Argentina’s victory in the 2004 Athens Games as proof that no country dominates world basketball in this day and age.

“The Olympic basketball tournament in Athens showed how global our game has become. It was the most competitive in Olympic history.

“Serbia and Montenegro, which has been dominating on the international basketball scene for the past 15 years, is a prime example of how balanced the game is now.

“They were the defending world champions and have won the world championships five of the 14 times they have been held. But in Athens, they finished 11th.”

Wanninger detailed how the draw — with four groups of six teams — for the 2006 Worlds will be determined.

“At this time, only Japan, as the host nation, and Argentina, as the reigning Olympic champion, have qualified for the next world championships.

“The other 22 teams have to go through a grueling qualification process. Europe will have six spots, the Americas four spots (plus Argentina), Oceania two spots, Asia three spots, Africa three spots.

“The remaining four places will be decided by wild card berths just prior to the draw. They will be determined by sporting criteria, such as whether they can be competitive in the tournament, and economic criteria.”

FIBA, which just awarded the 2010 world championships to Turkey, was clearly impressed with what it saw during its stay in Japan.

Said Wanninger: “There is only one group that is more German than the Germans when it comes to details and preciseness, and that’s the Japanese.”

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