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First in a two-part series

The Yokohama BayStars have been stuck in the bottom half of the Central League standings — seven times at the very bottom — for each of the last 10 years. This has led to the fans wearing more frowns than big, bright smiles.

This year, the team is in a good position to reach the three-team postseason, which would be the first time since the NPB championship-winning campaign of 1998 that a BayStars team was still playing after the regular season had ended. The current state of the team has absolutely produced more smiles than in recent years.

The BayStars, who have won two Japan Series titles, the first coming in 1960, are in the third place in the league with a 48-47-3 record, as of Tuesday.

But winning isn’t the only thing keeping the smiles on the BayStars fans’ faces. The fun atmosphere at the team’s home games is another reason people head to Yokohama Stadium. That atmosphere is thanks to the club’s restless efforts to improve the quality of the fan service it provides.

Since the team was acquired by DeNA Co., Ltd. before the 2012 season — the team is now called the Yokohama DeNA BayStars — the ballclub has made drastic reforms in management and experienced the biggest leap in attendance among the entire 12-club NPB between 2012 and 2015.

In their final year under the previous ownership of Tokyo Broadcasting System in 2011, the BayStars averaged just 15,308 per home game. Last year, that figure had risen to 25,546, which was an increase of 66 percent. They have averaged over 26,000 so far this season at their 29,000-seat home stadium.

Their fan club membership has swelled by about 10 times since the internet technology company took over the club, too.

In terms of sales figures, the BayStars improved from ¥5.1 billion in 2011 to ¥9.3 billion in 2015, an increase of 82 percent.

Jun Ikeda, the ballclub’s young president, said in a recent exclusive interview with The Japan Times that in the first year under the DeNA ownership, the club began with marketing data acquisition to analyze what kind of fans were coming to the games, which the franchise hadn’t done previously.

The collected marketing data indicated male company employees in their 20s, 30s, and 40s were the team’s core fans in terms of attendance

So early on, the club put an emphasis on targeting them, providing special services, such as cutting beer prices in half for them. Eventually the team came up with ideas to bring in more female fans and families, like selling tickets which offer female fans special replica jerseys and setting up attractions for children inside Yokohama Park, where the stadium is located.

Ikeda, 40, said the club has experienced as much growth as originally hoped in both attendance and revenue. But he noted that this isn’t a jaw-dropping feat, because the marketing expert knew he and his company would achieve this result by utilizing proper marketing strategies.

“Before baseball, I dealt with snacks, automobiles, drinks and things like that,” said Ikeda, who has worked for major general trading and advertising and public relations companies. “So I have the marketing methods to come up with results, and we used them in our club and those figures followed.”

Taking advantage of his youth, Ikeda doesn’t just sit behind a desk and put his stamp of approval on things. He’s actively leading the management team in its efforts to fill the stadium.

“To me, marketing, communication and branding are management issues,” he said. “So I believe that the president has to take on the role of brand manager.

“I often check the daily active users of our website to see how many unique visitors we have. I tell our people in charge of that to keep watching it every day, too. So I lead our marketing myself to a considerable degree.”

Needless to say, those efforts are also directed at fan services at Yokohama Stadium, where the club has provided many different unique attractions at home games and set up a variety of different specialized seats.

And the club intends to stick to being original. Though Ikeda said that he doesn’t see other NPB clubs as his club’s benchmarks, he rejects ideas that are too similar to what other clubs are practicing.

“You don’t make your products the same as everyone else’s,” he said. “There’s only 12 (clubs) in Japan, but it’d just make the 12 go in the same direction. I rather think that the 12 have 12 different characters of their own and the fans should choose teams they like.”

One of the new moves the BayStars have made recently is to regularly sell craft beers, called “BayStars Ale” and “BayStars Lager” at home games. The beers are one of the many examples that show Ikeda and his ballclub are particular about the details of their product, so as to better draw fans to their games.

According to Ikeda, the club spent a couple of years coming up with their original beers, having visited places like Portland, Oregon, and Germany, trying many different beers and being lectured by brewers, while it also asked its players and coaches how they wanted the beer to taste.

“We made so many different (trial beers), discussing whether the American hops would fit the best, the German hops would fit the best, or the Czech hops would fit the best, things like that,” Ikeda said with a smile.

As a top administrator of a professional baseball club, Ikeda believes a healthy management system has to be established before putting in the effort to form a better team, which has not necessarily been the case in the long history of Japanese professional baseball, where teams’ deficits have generally been offset by their parent companies’ budgets.

“Our original assumption was that the team wouldn’t get stronger overnight because it’s professional sports,” Ikeda said. “I hear that in the sports business here, they invest in their teams first and then stabilize their management. But I have the belief that your team doesn’t get better unless you have the right management.”

The large amount of debt the club owed when DeNA took over, which was reportedly believed to be between ¥2 billion and ¥3 billion, shrank to about ¥300 million last year. The club expects to finally be in the black this year, which means it will be able to invest in the team and players more from this point on.

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