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For a nation so famous for its baseball exports — from Hideo Nomo to Shohei Ohtani — Japan hasn’t done a very good job at promoting Nippon Professional Baseball outside its own borders.

The Pacific League, the more forward-thinking of NPB’s two leagues, could spark change in that area in the near future, as it works to take its game — and its teams — global.

One of the first steps is bringing Pa. League baseball to American audiences, which the league is hoping to accomplish through its recent deal to broadcast over 200 games on U.S. sports channel For The Fans (FTF) for the remainder of the season.

“We are very happy to have a deal with FTF in the U.S. market because our company’s mission is to grow a new fan base for Japanese pro baseball,” Tomoki Negishi, CEO of Pacific League Marketing, told The Japan Times. “So our fan base market is not only in Japan but also the global market.”

There have long been small pockets of foreign fans clamoring for an easier way to watch Japanese baseball. So one way PLM is hoping to increase international interest is simply by making it easier for more fans to see games.

“They might find prospective players for Major League Baseball,” Negishi said. “Shogo Akiyama joined MLB (this year) and some prospective players exist in the Pacific League. So they might enjoy finding the prospects.

He also cited the cheering style NPB fans are known for, though COVID-19 has largely muted them this year.

“I think it’s a big difference (from MLB),” he said. “I think they can enjoy both on and off the field.”

The deal with FTF, the alternate brand name Eleven Sports Network uses in the United States, happened swiftly. There had been talks about showing games on ESPN, but the U.S. giant already had a deal in place to broadcast games from the Korea Baseball Organization, leaving no live slots for PL contests. Once FTF reached out, a deal was struck within a month.

The pact runs through this season and Negishi is hopeful of finding a way to continue broadcasting games in the United States — either on FTF or by other methods — beyond this year.

“To continue to shape the habit of watching Japanese pro baseball in the United States is very important,” Negishi said.

For PLM, however, international broadcasts are just the first step. The league is also looking into branching out into merchandising and increasing its digital footprint through social media and Pacific League TV, its digital subscription service (aimed primarily at Japanese speakers) that allows fans to watch PL games.

PLM is currently doing research to see what sort of market there might be for Japanese baseball in the United States.

“I know it’s a niche market, not major, but I think there is a wide space for us,” Negishi said. “Because so far, there is nothing for NPB or for the Pacific League.

“So we are now looking for new opportunities to do business in the United States market. I have some friends who are involved in scouting activities for individual Major League Baseball teams. Everyone is interested in (Orix Buffaloes pitcher) Yoshinobu Yamamoto and also everyone is interested in (Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks slugger Yuki) Yanagita. I know there is a market. So we have a great opportunity to do new business in the United States.”

Buffaloes starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto delivers a pitch against the Eagles on June 19 in Osaka. | KYODO
Buffaloes starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto delivers a pitch against the Eagles on June 19 in Osaka. | KYODO

Japanese baseball has lagged behind other sports leagues in marketing due in part to the conservatism of some of its clubs, if not the league itself, and due to a lack of imagination when it comes to promoting itself in and outside Japan.

One example is broadcasting rights, which each team can negotiate individually for home games. That presents a nebulous web of red tape for interested parties because they have to negotiate with individual teams rather than a single entity.

“In the traditional Japanese way, Giants can broadcast only Tokyo Dome’s games and the Hanshin Tigers can broadcast only Koshien games, I think that’s not efficient for fans,” Negishi said.

Pacific League Marketing was created in 2007, to address issues like this and present a unified front for the PL. Its overarching philosophy is to work for the betterment of all six PL clubs simultaneously, emphasizing what’s good for the group.

Tom Negishi is the current CEO of Pacific League Marketing. | COURTESY OF PACIFIC LEAGUE MARKETING
Tom Negishi is the current CEO of Pacific League Marketing. | COURTESY OF PACIFIC LEAGUE MARKETING

“We are doing good things for all six clubs, and not having the individual clubs doing it,” Negishi said. “I think that philosophy is the general one of the Major League Baseball organization, including Major League Baseball Advanced Media. We are always keeping up with the major league organization. So we have a role model.”

The company has also reached out and received advice from MLB Advanced Media in the past.

Broadcasting in foreign markets is just part of the PLM plan. Negishi also feels connecting with fans in their own language can help deepen their interest. He said PLM is already doing that in Taiwan, with everything translated to the local language.

“We want our content to reach English-speakers, so we want to convert from Japanese to English on everything, not only broadcasts but also social media and things like that,” he said. “So we have a plan to have media exposure in English. In the near future we’re going to have it.”

That goes for Spanish-speaking countries as well. PLM is already working with Claudio Rodriguez, director of the website beisboljapones.com, who is an “Official Media Partner” of Pacific League TV in Latin America.

It’s a largely untapped market, one full of potential fans but also not without obstacles.

“The fans are very interested in what Latin players are doing in Japan and would love to watch their games, but often times are unable to afford subscription fees and are completely dependent on what the local networks can bring them, which is not much,” Rodriguez told The Japan Times.

Local networks, he says, may also lack the funds for broadcasting rights and may simply turn to MLB, the safer option.

The PL can offer its games, but with NPB operating under a convoluted model where it can’t offer a package with all 12 teams, it’s a tough sell. Interested parties would have to work with both PLM and then each of the six Central League clubs, and then also NPB for the Japan Series.

“It’s a nightmare to negotiate that way,” Rodriguez said. “The end result, of course, is that the prospective buyers back up and go away.

“One drawback for PLTV is that most of the Latin players that are currently active in NPB play in the Central League, and that takes away some of its appeal. If they could broadcast the games of all 12 teams, then it would be easier to sell their product.”

Rodriguez thinks, however, PLM’s efforts could eventually pay off.

“Considering all that, I think PLTV has done an amazing job in doing what it can to promote and sell the product abroad,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before they break into Latin America, too.”

Negishi isn’t in a rush just yet. So far, this international push is still in phase one. He hopes PLM can continue to seed interest in Pacific League baseball at home and abroad and see major growth in around five years.

“So far we sell our broadcast rights to (FTF), but it’s little revenue for us,” he said. “But that’s not a problem, because this is step one.

“So we want to create more exposure in the United States market. Hopefully American fans who are interested in Japanese baseball will increase this year or next year. Then, step two, we can sell the broadcast rights for more money, or we can distribute Pacific League TV directly more and more, or (get into) merchandising or something like that. We want to have a lot of opportunities. The most important thing is exposure and delivering content to the local fans in the United States.”

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