Jun Ikeda has been involved in the sports business world since his stint as president of the Yokohama DeNA BayStars, which began in 2012.
Even so, he barely knew anything about the Saitama Broncos, the basketball club he now runs as the owner.
For Ikeda, however, a deep knowledge of the team, or even of the sport of basketball, isn’t key to running a successful ballclub.
What’s important is to do unprecedented things and have fun.
“I’m not one who will continue to make a living in basketball,” Ikeda said in an online interview with the Japan Times late last month, saying he'll leave the future of the sport to others.
Ikeda was only 35 when he was named as the BayStars’ president after the club was purchased by DeNA Co., Ltd. He would eventually become known as the driving force behind getting the team, which had been operating with deficits of as much as ¥2.4 billion a year, into the black.
After leaving that post in 2016, Ikeda worked in various roles in sports. He served as a specially appointed director for the Japan Rugby Football Union, chief branding officer for Japan SR, which operated the Sunwolves, Japan’s Super Rugby team, and as a counselor for the Japan Sports Agency.
Ikeda is thrilled about his new challenge with the Broncos, perhaps more than ever before, because as owner he has the freedom to do things his way.
“I have no intention of doing the same things I did with the BayStars, and I want to do completely new things,” said Ikeda, who took over as chairman of the Saitama Sports Commission upon request from Saitama city mayor Hayato Shimizu last year before acquiring the Broncos this past March.
On July 1, the Broncos unveiled a new logo and changed their primary color from green to red in a move away from two of their longtime standards. They also changed the “Saitama” portion of the team name in the logo from kanji to hiragana.
This is only a small part of the changes the team is undergoing.
In a sense, the Broncos are one of Japanese basketball’s historic franchises, as the team was one of the first to become fully professional when the bj-league, Japan’s first pro circuit and one of the predecessors to the B. League, kicked off in 2005.
Ikeda said that unlike an NPB club, like DeNA, the Broncos have a much smaller budget and can’t spend too much. He said he and his team would need to brainstorm and come up with intriguing ideas.
“We want to have a presence that’s different from any other sports team, let alone other (basketball) teams,” said Ikeda, a Hokkaido native who grew up in Kanagawa Prefecture.
The B. League third division consists of 12 pro and amateur teams, whereas every club in the top two divisions are professional. As a result, B3 is more obscure when compared to B1 or B2. Yet Ikeda believes a B3 team can achieve success and gain attention by being unique.
For instance, sports teams usually want to build around one city. Ikeda, however, plans to establish footholds in several locations around Saitama Prefecture.
The Broncos, who were formed in 1982 as the Mazda Auto Tokyo basketball team in the industrial league, have long used Tokorozawa as their home base. Ikeda, though, wants to create a “double franchise” between Tokorozawa and Saitama, the prefectural capital, with the former used more as a base for the club’s youth teams. He also wants to establish official ties with the cities of Kasukabe and Fukaya.
Looking at their roster, the Broncos have signed players who can also contribute off the court. For example, center/forward Yoshiaki Uno is listed as a “player/businessman” as he owns a personal training gym. Guard Morgan Hikaru Aiken will also serve as an assistant designer for the team. The players have also been asked to help search for sponsors and are supposed to get a 30 percent commission when successful.
Additionally, Ikeda thinks the COVID-19 pandemic will have an impact on sports business, as well as general society, for a prolonged period. He says leagues and teams won’t be able to fully operate the same as before due to many people being hit hard financially.
That has also caused Ikeda to rethink his plans for a new arena for the Broncos, who finished seventh in B3 with a 19-20 record in 2019-20, in Saitama.
“I was thinking of a big, cool-looking, cutting-edge arena that’s near a train station and can have a capacity of about 10,000 like the NBA,” Ikeda said. “But I’ve come to change my mind since this coronavirus broke out. I want to make something smaller, yet cool.
“I think the value of live sporting events will rise a lot after the coronavirus outbreak. I think coming to a live sporting event will have more value, it’s going to be more special. People will suffer more financially going forward, and you won’t be able to spend too much money on leisure.”
Ikeda believes that his third-division team can make some buzz.
He said that he wants to win the B3 championship, but what he genuinely wants to do is to prove a small-budget team can do something new and attractive in the league, which has 48 teams combined in the three divisions.
“It’s about how you attract people’s attention,” Ikeda said. “It’s easy to say that you want to make your team competitive, you want to play in B2, you want to play in B1. But what sets you apart from other teams? Who would sympathize with you? You have to capture people’s hearts.”