The B. League, a brand-new men’s professional basketball circuit in Japan, will open its inaugural season later this month.
But with so many uncertainties, success isn’t guaranteed.
Among them is how clubs that have been owned by major corporations will attract fans and make money solely from their basketball operations as genuine professional teams.
Under the B. League system, clubs are required to generate revenue solely from their basketball-related businesses, such as ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandise.
The Sunrockers Shibuya, formerly known as the Hitachi Sunrockers, are one corporate team that previously did not appear to make as much of an effort to generate its own revenue as teams without huge corporate backing did.
The Sunrockers had an average home attendance of just 1,337 in the NBL last season, which ranked 17th among the 18 clubs that will play in the B. League top division in 2016-17. That’s less than half the average attendance of the most popular teams, such as the Chiba Jets (3,539) and Ryukyu Golden Kings (3,288). And as a reminder, when the B. League was formed, one of the criteria for admission to the top division was having a 5,000-seat arena, so the Sunrockers will need to make a huge effort to fill their house.
Clearly, the Sunrockers, along with other former corporate clubs, will have to start life in the B. League much more like an authentic pro team.
The Sunrockers have an added challenge after relocating their franchise to a completely new area. They have moved from Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, to Shibuya, one of the busiest areas in Tokyo. The team’s new home will be the main gymnasium on the Aoyama Gakuin University campus.
“Oh, without a doubt,” BT Toews, the team’s new head coach, said, when asked if his club would have to make an extra effort to be more professional and draw more fans. “Especially because this is Shibuya Sunrockers. We’re trying to win a fan base in this area. The Hitachi team has a long history, they have a following. But they’ve had, other than the (annual single-elimination tournament) All-Japan (they) won last year, they’ve had some down years.”
Toews added that the team plans to change its style of play to a more up-tempo game with a lot of ball movement. It also needs to entertain its fans by living up to its slogan for the upcoming season: “Hungry to win.”
“We would like to play a little more attractive basketball,” Toews, who led the Fujitsu Red Wave to consecutive Women’s Japan Basketball League Finals appearances in the last two seasons, said in fluent Japanese, before switching to English. “That’s kind of what I’m after — the ‘Hungry to win’ slogan. Every year, teams have slogans and sometimes they live up to them, sometimes they don’t. But in this case, that’s a measuring stick for us every practice and game.”
Meanwhile, the Sunrockers have acquired veteran player Taishiro Shimizu, who understands how important it is to have a professional mindset both on and off the floor, having played in the fully professional bj-league for Saitama, Miyazaki, Oita and Fukuoka over the last 11 seasons.
Having moved to the major corporation-owned Sunrockers, the 35-year-old guard said that the circumstances are totally different from the professional clubs he’s played for.
Shimizu said that the pro clubs have had to spend more time attending community events to get recognition, especially during the offseason, while the corporate teams could focus more on playing basketball.
But Shimizu insisted that from now on, all the teams in the B. League, whether they are pro clubs or former corporate teams, would have to be highly professional. That goes for all the club staff, not just the players.
“I think there are huge gaps between the corporate clubs, including Hitachi, and other professional clubs in terms of (professionalism),” Shimizu said. “So I would like to give my opinion to the company and its staff going forward. And we’ll have to make an effort to be recognized in the town (through our off-court activities), not just playing basketball.”
But at the end of the day, the best product that basketball teams have for the fans are their on-court performances.
Forward Ira Brown, who has recently obtained Japanese citizenship, doesn’t particularly feel like he has to do anything extra just because the new league is starting. He says he personally steps on the court with a professional attitude anyway.
“I always try to conduct myself in a professional standpoint,” the 34-year-old Brown said. “So I’m just going to go out and continue to be myself, because I want (the fans) to have a great experience and enjoy coming to the gym and watching us play.”
Asked what is the key for the new league to be successful, Sunrockers coach Toews said that it’s always the same in every sport — the product that you put on the field or court.
“As head coaches, we’re not thinking a lot about entertaining fans, but it’s part of being professional,” Toews, a Canadian native, said. “Because you can sometimes win ugly and the fans don’t appreciate what you’re doing.”
He added: “That’ll be a key. It’s the quality of the product on the floor.”