Kawachi shooting for stars with new pro hoop league


Toshimitsu Kawachi, the commissioner of Japan’s first ever professional basketball league, is a true believer.

Like anyone embarking upon a new business endeavor, he chooses to accentuate the positives. This is important, because he is trying to go where no one has before.

News photoToshimitsu Kawachi, commissioner of the bj-league, speaks at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo.

The six-team bj-league, which begins play on Nov. 5 with franchises in Tokyo, Saitama, Sendai, Niigata, Osaka and Oita each playing a 40-game schedule, will face significant obstacles as it attempts to make pro basketball into a viable commodity on the sports landscape here.

The 51-year-old Kawachi, a former player for and head coach of the Japan national team, is undaunted.

“There are close to 5 million people who play basketball in Japan, which is more than baseball or soccer,” Kawachi noted at a recent meeting of the Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan in Tokyo.

“We are not only looking at people who play basketball, but people interested in other sports, kids who play basketball and their families and couples. The spectrum is not only for core basketball fans.

“Basketball is not a major sport in Japan at this time. The main goal of the first year is to bring the fans to the court. After that, with success will come TV rights, merchandising, etc. The focus now is on filling the stands.”

It has been said that timing is everything in life.

Kawachi, who played 10 seasons for the Mitsui Seimei team, is driving home this point by launching his new venture just nine months before the nation hosts the 2006 FIBA World Championship, which will see 24 countries from around the globe come to Japan to vie for the title.

“Yes, that (Japan hosting the worlds) was a factor in deciding to start the league this year. In the past, the hosts of the world championship have all had a professional league. By starting it this year, we will be able to feel the competitive difference among the pros from the various countries.

“In 2007, we will have the Olympic qualifiers for the 2008 Beijing Games. China is well ahead of the race in Asia, but they are the host country for the next Olympics, so it will be everyone else in the region competing for a berth.

“By opening the new league this year, we will have a standard by which we can measure the powerhouses in Asia.”

Kawachi, who played collegiately at Meiji University, and his staff have done their homework and hope to learn from the mistakes made by their predecessors in other sports.

“The past instances of failure in pro leagues have been when teams have depended on companies to support them. In the bj-league, this is not the case that is the biggest difference. We have studied the past failures in rugby and volleyball.

“For example, the volleyball and the basketball associations in Japan are actually run by teachers. They already have a livelihood.

“The bj-league is depending on this business to make a living. When we went around to look for investors for this league, we found a passion and the right business plan to make it work.

“The worldwide popularity of the sport, plus the number of kids playing basketball in Japan, was big enough to get people to invest in this plan.”

Kawachi, a Tokyo native, claims that despite pro basketball being an unproven product in Japan, the league has lined up a large number of investors, including some financial heavyweights.

“The representatives of each team have invested in the league, but that is a very small proportion. There are 180 individual and corporate sponsors behind the league, and 60-70 of them are passionate about basketball.

“This group includes (Hiroshi) Mikitani-san from Rakuten (owner of the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles) and (chairman Keizo) Saji-san from Suntory Corp.

“I am an individual investor,” Kawachi said. “We are considering this as a venture company. Within five years we are planning to have an IPO.”

Investors like to get in on the ground floor of something with potential. With the bj-league, they can do it relatively inexpensively.

“One share of stock is 100,000 yen. That is the minimum investment,” Kawachi noted.

“There are stock options for the staff. We do not plan to return the capital gains by going open to the market.

“When we talked to investors, one of the goals was to build basketball arenas in Japan.”

The largest arena in the bj-league, which will use NBA rules, will seat approximately 10,000 fans (in Tokyo), while the smallest will hold 4,000 (in Oita).

For many years, the Japan Basketball League — the closest thing to pro basketball here — has suffered from an identity crisis.

The JBL teams play a schedule that has them moving throughout Japan on a regular basis, with no true home court. It is very hard to build a fan base when supporters don’t know where the next game is going to be played.

Kawachi, who coached Mitsui Seimei to the JBL title following the end of his playing days, recognizes the opportunity this has created for his new league.

“We have seen success in both baseball and the J. League by bringing in local fans and making it a local team. We want to have that in the bj-league.”

One question on the mind of many in the basketball community is whether both the bj-league and JBL can coexist as separate entities.

Kawachi, who has been an analyst on NBA games on NHK television for several years, believes the JBL was caught off-guard by the bj-league’s formation.

“Initially, the JBL’s reaction was, ‘Wow. These guys are really going to form a new league?’

“In 2007, the JBL will also become a pro league. What I am thinking now is, ‘Can we collaborate?’

“For example, as in the case of the NBA and the ABA merging. However, I am putting this on hold for now.

“We both have the same vision of making a strong national team. They (the JBL) will do it their way (with corporate sponsorships), and we will do it our way as a professional league.

“I think if we had not announced the formation of the bj-league last November, that JABBA (Japan Amateur Basketball Association — the governing body for the JBL) probably would not have said that they were going to go pro two years later.”

In the past, pro sports teams in Japan have been run by executives of the parent company who had little or no background in the field, and thus lacked vision for the future.

Kawachi, who joined the bj-league after heading up Niigata Sports Promotions — which manages the Niigata Albirex (a team that is leaving the JBL to join the new circuit) — for four years, is breaking the mold and thinking big.

“We are planning to expand next year and eventually have 12 teams. Six in western Japan and six in eastern Japan.”

(True to his word, Kawachi announced Oct. 13 that two new clubs — in Kagawa and Toyama prefectures — would join the league for the 2006-2007 season.)

Kawachi envisions a 12-team, two-conference system, with each franchise playing 80 games, within five years.

“It is also important to retain all the league sponsorship rights under one umbrella as they do in the four major sports in North America. This is a key to success.”

In addition to looking at where previous leagues have failed, Kawachi has also studied the textbook Japanese blueprint for pro sports success.

“We are taking a page from the J. League on how to operate financially. One of our main goals is to approach the local communities. We are looking at three generations to help build this league. The grandparents, parents and the kids.”

Along the same lines, Kawachi is also reaching out to the greatest success story in his own sport — the NBA.

“We sent a consultant to meet with the commissioners of the NFL, NHL and NBA. (NBA commissioner) David Stern heard what our goals were and said, ‘It’s a great idea. If there is anything the NBA can do to help, it will.’

“One plan that we are considering in conjunction with the NBA is forming a team with Japanese players in the NBDL (National Basketball Developmental League) — the NBA’s minor league.”

For the 2006-2007 season, the NBA wants to have 15 NBDL teams, which means that two NBA clubs would help supply each NBDL franchise with players. There are currently 30 teams in the NBA.

One of the most intriguing facets the bj-league will offer when it hits the hardwood in a few weeks, is its rule on foreign players.

Unlike pro baseball, which has a limit on the number of foreigners that can be carried on the first-team roster, the bj-league won’t.

“In the future, I want to make this league strong enough to make the players overseas want to play here. Therefore, there will be no limit on the number of foreign players allowed on each team.”

Kawachi envisions the bj-league inspiring the dreams of youngsters for basketball much like the J. League has done for soccer.

“In the past, baseball dominated pro sports. In the last 13 years, however, we have seen the establishment of the J. League and so more kids are taking up soccer.

“It used to be that the prototypical Japanese athlete was a pitcher who batted fourth.

“If you look at the J. League and players like (Hidetoshi) Nakata, (Shunsuke) Nakamura and (Shinji) Ono, in the past these kids with athleticism would have been a pitcher and batted fourth, but now they play soccer.

“With the bj-league starting up, kids that are in their teens — junior high school and grade school students playing basketball — they can dream of playing as a pro in Japan. In 10 years, there will be kids going to play in the NBA.

“Without pro leagues to play in, Nakata would not have gone to Italy, or Ichiro or (Hideki) Matsui to the major leagues.”

Kawachi cited the entrance of guard Yuta Tabuse in the NBA last season — albeit briefly — as a watershed moment for the game here.

“Tabuse making it to the NBA despite there being no pro league here at the time, made it a significant accomplishment.”

And if Tabuse, who is now in training camp with Los Angeles Clippers, can’t make the grade with the best basketball players in the world, what is Kawachi’s position on bringing him home to headline Japan’s first pro hoop league?

“Tabuse’s goal is to make it to the NBA. We don’t want to get in his way. However, if he is unable to achieve that goal and says he wants to come back and play in the bj-league, the door is open.”