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Threatening media not a wise move for league needing exposure


“I may be getting older but I refuse to grow up,” someone once said.

The previous sentence may be an amusing expression used by close friends. But as a business attitude it’s counterproductive and foolish — risky, too.

Unfortunately, it’s the mind-set of a few key decision makers in the bj-league, including Shiga Lakestars general manager/CEO Shinsuke Sakai.

Hoop Scoop has learned that Sakai has considered barring Basketball Navi, a quality website devoted to reporting on the sport, from having access to his team in the future.

The reason?

Veteran guard Takamichi Fujiwara complained about officiating after the Jan. 15 game against the Kyoto Hannaryz, Basketball Navi published his comments and he was handed a one-game suspension by the league.

Basketball Navi told Hoop Scoop that the comments were made at the post-game news conference, which was supervised by the Hannaryz. The question Fujiwara responded to, I was told, was asked by another news agency’s reporter.

That didn’t stop the Lakestars, under Sakai’s leadership, from questioning the validity of Fujiwara’s published remarks. In fact, I’ve been informed, Sakai has suggested that Basketball Navi used comments that were off the record or that it fabricated the comments.

Based on my sources, Basketball Navi recorded the interview and offered to present it to the team to prove its point.

But hey, couldn’t a Kyoto official have confirmed that the comments were made in a proper news conference setting?

Naturally, the Lakestars aren’t happy that Fujiwara missed a game, but Sakai’s reaction was unacceptable, but hardly surprising.

“Sakai often tries to threaten anyone he disagrees with,” a league insider said recently.

Even someone who pays attention only half the time realizes the league has almost zero sustained coverage on the national level.

So why would Sakai even consider banning Basketball Navi, with correspondents based in Tokyo, Osaka and Niigata, from giving hoop fans comprehensive coverage?

In other words, why bite the hand that feeds you?

Instead of handling this incident in a professional manner, Sakai has stooped to the level of a playground bully.

Indeed, the proper response should have been this: Remind Fujiwara and the entire organization that the team wants to project a positive image to its fans, sponsors, the league and the media. If someone violates these guidelines, then he/she faces fines or other appropriate measures.

That would have been the common-sense solution. And it would have eliminated a lot of wasted time for Basketball Navi, the Lakestars and league officials, all of whom have more important things to do.

This incident, a teachable moment, also brings to the fore a broader issue: Can the bj-league, in any of its 16 current markets afford to have any less media coverage?

Sure, some will say websites aren’t traditional media outlets, but the Internet has grown into the transformative technology that has revolutionized the way we live. Therefore, discussions between the league, Basketball Navi and the Lakestars about whether legitimate websites should receive credentials to cover the league is a flawed argument.

That’s been part of Sakai’s response in the aftermath of Fujiwara’s suspension.

Again: Broadcast and print coverage of the league on a national level is quite small. Which is why media-friendly policies are absolutely necessary to enhance the public’s knowledge of the personalities who make a living in the fledgling circuit.

Even if Sakai wouldn’t execute his threat to Basketball Navi, it’s a dangerous precedent to set. Threats are one thing; not seeing the big picture is another.

The league’s future survival depends greatly on the growth of fan bases for the eight teams that joined or are joining the fray between 2009-11 — Kyoto (2009); Akita, Shimane and Miyazaki (2010); and Chiba, Shinshu, Yokohama and a to-be-named Iwate Prefecture franchise (2011) — and the other clubs.

Reaching out to more media and establishing greater opportunities for increased coverage needs to be one of all teams’ and the league’s primary concerns.

Face the facts: In a democracy, it’s impossible for all media coverage to be pleasing to all people. Nor should it be.

It’s time to remember that, accept it and move on. After all, this is professional sports, where any publicity can be good to spread the message about a league’s existence, its stars and its ordinary performers.

* * * * *

Rapid expansion is a never-ending objective and/or obsession, it seems, for the bj-league. One can admire commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi and the league’s other big wigs for their ambition and vision to create a league from scratch.

But at some point the thought of slowing down and making necessary improvements must be the league’s top mission.

Few people around the league, including myself, believe the quality of play, coaching, officiating, marketing, scorekeeping, media relations and any other vital aspect of the league’s operations have kept pace with expansion.

From six teams in 2005-06, to eight the next season, the league expanded to 10, 12, 13 and 16 clubs, and, finally, 20 next season. And already there’s talk of expansion for 2012-13, with seven prospective groups in the mix, including applicants from Nara, Gunma, Hiroshima and Kagoshima prefectures.

Truth be told, a money-raising venture comes to mind as one of only two logical reasons for this plan. The other is a concerted effort to make the JBL irrelevant by constantly flooding the market with new teams.

Some people have serious doubts that the so-called merger between the bj-league and JBL will materialize due to a leadership vacuum in the sport, among other factors.

Taka Karato, an Osaka-based observer whom I spoke to recently, pointed out that “I have never heard the vision and the clear plan of the future basketball league. All I know about the bj-league is that their management ability is worse than ramen chain restaurants.”

Ryukyu Golden Kings big man Jeff Newton, who has played in the league since 2005, acknowledged it’s a tough question, but supports growth in principal.

“Personally as a player and a fan of the league, I love seeing it grow in size and popularity,” Newton, a four-time bj-league title winner, said Friday. “I guess I’m a little bit biased, but it excites me to have more teams on the way.

“But is it too soon? Will it hurt some teams? Only time will tell. We’ll see. There’s only so much information about the situation I get, so from my seat I would think that most players would support the move.”

Lakestars center Ray Schafer agreed that the league’s future is uncertain right now.

“I don’t know if more (teams) is better because of the quality that can be diluted . . . players and coaches being spread out,” he said. “But I do know there are a lot of great players in this league who don’t see playing time because they are second or third in line.”

Osaka Evessa booster Wolfy Nishioka said, “Expansion is not good, (but) all things are not bad. Some of (the league’s) excuses are some expansion teams have good attendance just like Shimane and Akita. But how about Miyazaki (averaging 923 fans per game; 14th among 16 teams through Jan. 24)?”

With continued rapid expansion, Nishioka said, “players’ level will be lower . . . and refs’ level will (be) worse.”

Tommie McGowan, a Golden Kings supporter, offered his insights as well.

“I strongly feel that adding more teams to a league that cannot fully support the existing teams is a very big mistake,” he said. “They should concentrate more on trying to get more fans in the stands than teams in the league. Work on building more interest in the games by having league-sponsored camps, league-sponsored activities during the season and offseason, quit changing rules each year, forget about trying to combine with the JBL . . . work on exceeding the JBL.”

Asked how quality control for all aspects of the game will be hurt by never-ending expansion, McGowan responded by saying, “Quality control is a definite must in all aspects of the game, from the gyms that are played in, the people working in that gym . . . everybody. If you have poor quality control, you are going to have a poor product.”

What about the perception — true or untrue — that the league’s business model defies conventional wisdom?

“I can understand having profit sharing, but there comes a point in time where that team has to stand on its own,” McGowan said.

“. . .(For future clubs), they should be able to show that they can support a team, show they have the interest in that team; not get a team, then work on trying to develop interest in it.”

Evessa coach Ryan Blackwell said: “It definitely seems counterproductive. I was definitely surprised when I read about it. Quantity over quality.

“You’re going to create a bigger problem with the refs, having more people that are uneducated about the game of basketball. It will create more jobs for foreign players, but also create more jobs for Japanese who aren’t that skilled or fundamentally sound.

“I guess it’s about getting the money initially and then figuring everything out after.”

Kei Sadayama of Basketball Navi said: “Expansion and growing the bj-league are not good moves. . . . If the number of teams increases, unqualified players will also increase.”

Voices of reason have spoken.