Hiroshi Mikitani, owner of the newly formed Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles baseball team, believes the success of Japanese pro baseball will uplift the spirit of sports fans and put the country on an emotional high.
The 39-year-old businessman has become an expert at proving doubters wrong and accomplishing the impossible, and sees baseball as just another opportunity to improve the overall prosperity of the country.
With his company Rakuten Inc. enjoying success as the largest Internet operator in Japan, Mikitani decided to try his hand at something new, something that may not necessarily win the approval of his friends and family right away. But he’s been there before.
“When I first told people about Rakuten Inc., most people tried to persuade me to back out because they thought it was an unprofitable business. They said Internet shopping is un-Japanese and it wouldn’t see success in Japan,” Mikitani said at the Japan National Press Club earlier this week.
“But I thought otherwise. I knew a startup venture had advantages big companies didn’t have. Unlike Internet shopping malls like Amazon and Yahoo, which were probably capitalized at 10 billion yen, we started with 20 million yen and turned that into a 36 billion yen market,” he said.
Mikitani, who is also the owner of pro soccer team Vissel Kobe in the J. League first division, said that running a business is no different with baseball, and besides, he has always welcomed challenges.
“I have a good instinct about this. Of course I’ve only done it with soccer, but the idea is the same. J. League matches draw more crowds than international matches these days. With baseball, we’re only at the starting point and we’re getting this much publicity. I don’t see why it can’t happen,” he said.
According to Mikitani, Vissel Kobe saw a 48 percent rise in attendance in one year and has increased its profits by 75 percent.
Although the baseball players are professionals and know what to expect once they get on the field, Mikitani said they may be surprised to discover the Rakuten business style — that is, the front office, players and all who share a common goal are treated with equal respect regardless of position.
“I’m not saying what other teams have done over the years is bad. We’re a new team and we just like to do it our way. We like to stand at eye-level with the players,” he said.
“Rakuten is the first team in half a century to join pro baseball in Japan. Lots of people worked hard to bring us here, and I told the players not to forget that. I told them they should consider themselves founders of the team.”
One of the things Mikitani takes pride in is the fact that Rakuten’s rising fortunes exist behind the effort of young employees, whose average age is 31. In a culture where age speaks volumes, Mikitani is trying to prove that a shared vision and teamwork transcend age.
Mikitani does not plan on adding any more big names to the team, but is rather keen to see how much can be accomplished by his current acquisitions — the 40 unprotected players who were selected to play for Rakuten in the distribution draft in November.
“It all depends on your perspective. Some prefer to gather big names and create a team full of top-class players. I, however, prefer to create stars out of average players.”
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