After decades of stagnation and instability, Japan men’s basketball is finally headed in the right direction.

As the B. League marks the third anniversary since its founding, the nation’s interest in one marquee game on May 11, the last day of its third season, highlighted the progress that the sport has made in a relatively short period of time. As a result, the B. League Championship final symbolizes what this new era represents: a sport governed by unity and a commitment to improving the product at all levels.

To reach this point, bold, painful steps were needed.

What happened?

Japan’s basketball leaders were ordered to discard old plans and competing ideologies and start all over again.

In November 2014, FIBA, basketball’s global governing body, suspended the Japan Basketball Association from international activities due to governance issues.

Alvark center Alex Kirk reacts after scoring an early basket against the Jets. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Alvark center Alex Kirk reacts after scoring an early basket against the Jets. | DAN ORLOWITZ

This crackdown was a result of the JBA’s persistent failure to meet a FIBA ultimatum: a forced merger between the JBA-backed National Basketball League (formerly the JBL, which consisted of corporate-owned teams) and the bj-league, an independent circuit modeled after the local NBA franchise concept that began operations in 2005 with six clubs and expanded each year of its 11-season existence.

Conversely, more than 10 JBL teams, including Isuzu, Daiwa and Sumitomo, ceased operations in the 1990s and early years of the 21st century.

For Japan, the basketball ban was a major embarrassment in the global sports community. Patrick Baumann, the late FIBA secretary-general, issued a thorough explanation at the time about why FIBA cracked down on the JBA.

“FIBA regrets that the situation has reached such a point of no return,” Baumann, who died in 2018, said in a statement. “However, we are convinced that after so many years of warnings and struggle, and for the good of basketball in Japan, it is absolutely time to make important changes to the structures of the JBA and of the domestic competitions in order to fully comply with FIBA’s General Statutes and also to embrace the opportunity that the 2020 Olympic Games will provide to basketball in Japan.”

Alvark fans cheer during Saturday's final. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Alvark fans cheer during Saturday’s final. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Revamping the sport

Over the course of many months, Japanese sports and government officials, representatives from the bj-league and NBL, legal experts and FIBA representatives who flew over from Europe met numerous times in Tokyo to develop the framework for a new era. Saburo Kawabuchi, a visionary former J. League chairman and Japan Football Association president, was brought in during a leadership shake-up at the JBA to get the ball rolling. Kawabuchi served as a task force co-chairman along with Ingo Weiss, a FIBA executive.

The B. League’s organizational structure was finalized in 2016, setting the stage for the new league’s first season. It began in the fall of 2016 with 45 teams, with 18 apiece in the first and second divisions, known as B1 and B2, respectively, and nine more in the third division. Relegation and promotion rules were implemented. Among the big changes for the new circuit: one designated primary arena (for 80 percent of a team’s home games) and a name that includes a team’s geographic location instead of its company backing. For example, the Toyota Motors Alvark became known as the Alvark Tokyo.

With the addition of the Gifu Swoops, the third division fielded 10 teams this season. Three more B3 clubs — TryHoop Okayama, Saga Ballooners and Veltex Shizuoka — join the fray next season, increasing the total number of clubs to 49.

Indeed, that’s a ton of teams, but interest in them is steadily growing, with an influx of media outlets, many of which are new or relatively new, now covering the sport on a year-round basis.

Alvark head coach Luka Pavicevic holds the B. League Championship trophy. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Alvark head coach Luka Pavicevic holds the B. League Championship trophy. | DAN ORLOWITZ

On May 11, the B. League concluded its third season with an exciting top-flight final between the reigning champion Alvark and the Chiba Jets Funabashi, who had the best regular-season record (52-8). In a rematch of the 2017-18 championship final, Tokyo, guided by second-year Montenegrin bench boss Luka Pavicevic, defended its title, winning 71-67 at Yokohama Arena. The Jets, who trailed by 19 points at the end of the third quarter, staged a spirited comeback led by regular-season MVP Yuki Togashi but came up short at the end.

An announced crowd of 12,972 attended the final, which started at 3:10 p.m. Tickets for the final went on sale on May 9 and sold out within 20 minutes, according to a news release.

NHK-BS and TV Tokyo televised last season’s final, which was also held at the same venue. Last week, NHK-G handled the live broadcast, reaching a broader audience.

This is a sign of growing interest in the B. League throughout the nation, according to media trainer Chie Katakami.

A former NHK Matsuyama newscaster, Katakami devised a training program for the B. League before its first season to establish guidelines for teams to conduct themselves in a professional manner while interacting with the media. She monitors the league’s overall media policies and offers constructive feedback.

In Japan, Katakami said, “the entire basketball world is now aimed at the same goal.”

She pinpointed the B. League’s savvy marketing strategy as a building block of success. The league has used a “smartphone-first” marketing plan to target young people, she said, calling it a “stylish image,” including the use of a slogan — “Break the border” — that Japan’s other pro leagues aren’t identified by.

An Alvark cheerleader waves a giant flag during a time out on May 11 in Yokohama. | DAN ORLOWITZ
An Alvark cheerleader waves a giant flag during a time out on May 11 in Yokohama. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Growth of the game

Scott Rim, a FIBA-licensed agent, believes the B. League is a success story despite its brief history.

“I think the B. League is doing a great job in terms of promoting ticket sales and revenue, and I can see games are usually fully packed,” Rim told The Japan Times. “In contrast, the KBL (Korean Basketball League) is losing its fans to volleyball, which is considered the fourth-most popular sport behind basketball, but it’s likely to overtake the third position.

“Japanese players and coaches were very fan-friendly and doing lots of events after the game, which allows for fans to enjoy moments after the game with their heroes,” added Rim, a former international relations manager and scout for the KBL’s Samsung Thunders.

Attendance figures released in December 2014 by the bj-league and NBL showed that only six of their combined 35 teams averaged at least 2,000 fans at their home games at that point in the season.

By comparison, 17 of 18 B1 clubs averaged 2,000-plus fans a game this season, with nine topping the 3,000 mark. The top three were Chiba (5,190), Tochigi (3,951) and Levanga Hokkaido (3,693) through mid-April, according to the league’s latest marketing report.

What’s more, eight first-division teams had an increase of 8 percent or more in average attendance from 2017-18. More than 2.5 million fans attended B1 games this season, an increase of 3.6 percent from last season. Attendance totals increased for the second year in a row.

Veteran forward Jawad Williams, who won a national title at the University of North Carolina, played alongside LeBron James on the Cleveland Cavaliers and has experienced major changes in Japan basketball’s landscape during his career. He competed for the JBL’s Rera Kamuy Hokkaido (2007-2008), also spent years in Europe and returned to Japan to play for the Alvark in 2017.

He described the progress that has been made as “huge.”

“I think Japan basketball is growing big time,” Williams said at Yokohama Arena. “It’s great to see. … It’s on the verge of being great, and as the sport continues to grow and as the players continue to grow, I think it will be even bigger in the future.”

Alvark head coach Luka Pavicevic displays the net during his team's victory celebrations. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Alvark head coach Luka Pavicevic displays the net during his team’s victory celebrations. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Overall unity

Kawasaki captain Ryusei Shinoyama recently noted that all of Japan basketball’s stakeholders, including the fans, are following one path “together into the next stage,” recounted Tomoya Higashino, the JBA technical director, who hired Pavicevic as an interim men’s national head coach and then handpicked Argentine Julio Lamas to fill the role.

Unlike the not-too-distant past when bj-league players weren’t allowed to play on the national team, Higashino recognizes cooperation as the hallmark of this period.

Higashino expanded the national team program to 70 players, inviting each team to provide players. Inclusion was the target, not exclusivity. “We have to change the culture of the games,” he insisted, “not only the games but also the practices every day.”

Establishing the requirement of a coaching license is another new step that Higashino took to elevate the profession because “you’ve got to compete against the worldwide coaches. That is the B. League, and that is a key to improve the players and the league and how everybody competes against each other.”

Alvark star Yudai Baba celebrates after winning the 2018-19 B. League final. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Alvark star Yudai Baba celebrates after winning the 2018-19 B. League final. | DAN ORLOWITZ

Former NCAA Division I, NBA G League (previously known as the NBA Development League), NBA and elite-level European club players fill roster spots in all three divisions, creating tough competition. Japanese coaches matched wits this season against counterparts from the United States, Australia and Spain, among other countries.

Asked to make a general assessment of the competition level and the overall quality of play since the outset of the inaugural season, Higashino responded by saying, “It’s a lot better. The intensity level of the game, defense, offense, technical skills, everything is better than three years ago, for sure.”

Without revealing exact figures, he added that B. League teams are now increasing their budgets by large amounts. For the 2017-18 season, league figures released in November reported a 30.2 percent increase in operating income to ¥19.5 billion from the previous season for the 36 clubs in B1 and B2.

In addition to the B. League’s economic growth, the men’s national team in February qualified for the 2019 FIBA World Cup, which was formerly called the FIBA World Championship, for the first time since 1998. This berth also booked a spot for Japan in the 2020 Olympic basketball tournament — the nation’s first appearance since 1976. This has helped create a buzz about national team players, such as Togashi and Alvark forward Yudai Baba, the B. League final MVP.

“Everybody can see that the league, the players and the atmosphere have improved,” Higashino said before adding, “No one talks about the bj-league and the NBL anymore. I haven’t heard it. Everything has changed. … It’s a new league.”

Jets cheerleaders perform during a timeout. | DAN ORLOWITZ
Jets cheerleaders perform during a timeout. | DAN ORLOWITZ

A new era

Professional baseball is ingrained in Japanese culture and achieved widespread popularity during the Showa Era (1926-1989). And the establishment of the J. League was a defining sports achievement in the Heisei Era (1989-2019) as teams built strong bonds with their local prefectures.

Higashino sees the Reiwa Era, which began on May 1, as basketball’s time to shine. He says it’s a golden opportunity for the B. League to promote itself via entertainment and digital marketing, and for the sport to attract Japanese youth as never before.

The biggest reason? Ex-Gonzaga University forward Rui Hachimura, a potential pro superstar, is on the verge of becoming the first Japanese to be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft in late June.

In short, all the signs appear to be pointing in the right direction for basketball to gain a larger foothold in Japan’s sports market.

“They tore it down and started all over again,” University of South Carolina sports economist Mark Nagel said in an interview, describing basketball’s rebirth in the B. League era.

“I think it’s stabilized and I think it’s done pretty well,” added Nagel, who has co-authored six textbooks, including “Financial Management in the Sport Industry,” and has written extensively about the business of sports, including Japanese baseball.

“I think you always have to keep it relative. Japanese baseball is the second-best major league in the world and Japanese basketball is probably not in the top five or six or seven, but at least now it’s stable and I think they’ve been able to right the ship … put multiple levels in place and make it viable.”

For teams to have continued economic growth, Nagel pointed out that marketing is key and urged them to be active. As for its short-term prospects, Nagel doesn’t expect the B. League to compete on par with top European leagues, China or Australia in the international basketball player acquisition market.

Instead, he recommended a more modest approach.

“If you can make improvements on a very small scale from year to year and have a longer-term plan, I think that’s how Japan should define or view stability,” Nagel said.

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