As president and chairman of the Chiba Jets Funabashi, Shinji Shimada gained a reputation as an eminent sports businessman who rebuilt the club from financial crisis to one of the most successful and popular teams in the B. League.
Now as the chief of the entire league, the 49-year-old carries high expectations to bring the circuit to the next level.
Shimada officially took over the league July 1 receiving the baton from its first chairman Masaaki Okawa. Shimada has had little time to settle down at his new office, having been forced to respond to the financial difficulties facing the league due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just as he did while in charge of the Jets, Shimada has traveled around the country, visiting clubs to give instructions and suggest ways to improve their management.
“My business style hasn’t changed,” Shimada told the Japan Times at the B. League office earlier this month. “You could call it a hands-on approach. I’ve been saying that without the clubs prospering, the league won’t flourish.”
Shimada inherited the league’s grand business development plans that its previous regime installed under Okawa with an eye on expanding its business scale from 2026. Currently, each B1 club needs annual revenues of ¥30 million ($285,000) in order to get a license to play in the division, but that figure will rise to ¥120 million ($1.14 million) by 2026.
At the same time, Shimada is facing pressing issues stemming from the pandemic, which have put many of the clubs in financial peril.
Among the ten commitments Shimada declared upon becoming chairman is that the league will not drop any clubs due to bankruptcy, even going so far as to say that he will return part of his executive compensation if those commitments aren’t met.
The 2019-20 season came to an abrupt ending in March due to the pandemic with one-third of the campaign remaining, and many of the clubs are expected to report deficits for the season when financial results are announced later this year.
“We’ll work on those things simultaneously,” Shimada said of his commitments. “But we won’t have any clubs to go bankrupt — that’s my centerpiece policy. I think my experience as a company management person will help and I’m going about it as sincerely as I can.”
With the coronavirus likely to remain a part of daily life in the near future, the 2020-21 campaign will certainly be different from previous years in which the league has rapidly grown.
The B. League, which will enter its fifth year with a single B1 matchup between the Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Alvark Tokyo at Arena Tachikawa Tachihi on Friday evening (there are three B2 games on the day), will have to play before crowds capped at 50 percent of arena capacities.
While these restrictions will make it difficult for the league and clubs to set attendance goals, Shimada said that viewership figures would be another new index for the league to emphasize going forward. SoftBank Corporation is the league’s top partner and streams all first and second-division games live on Basket Live.
“We’ve set a goal of 500,000 monthly active users from the opening month through the final month,” said Shimada, who became the president of the Jets, then of the bj-league (a B. League predecessor), in 2012. “Depending on the level of achievements, we’ll distribute incentives to the clubs.
“Until now the clubs have said, ‘Please come see live action at our arena.’ But from this year on, they are going to say, ‘Please watch our games (on Basket Live) as well.’”
Shimada believes that internet and television viewership numbers will eventually have a greater influence on the amount of investments from sponsors going forward.
While the prolonged pandemic will hit many industries hard, Shimada insisted that it would be a chance for his league to make positives out of it and attempt things that Japan’s pro baseball and soccer leagues have not done, claiming that the indoor sport will be better suited for digital technologies.
“Even if the attendance is 5,000, if the game is watched by 10 times as many, the value of the game will be perceived 20 times as big — I think an era like that will eventually arrive,” the Niigata Prefecture native said.
Shimada added that the league would present a new “business model that can compete with other sports leagues.”
With the growth of its business scale and its aim to strengthen the competitiveness of Japanese basketball and its national teams in sight, the B. League will go about internationalizing its brand and game.
Shimada cited the Asian player spot regulation, which has been introduced this year, as one of the best examples. The circuit has allowed up to two import players on the floor at the same time, but from this season Asian players from China, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines or South Korea will be exempt and can play as a third foreign-born player (the same treatment as a naturalized Japanese player).
“The installation of the Asian player rule helps address the differences in competitiveness between the teams,” Shimada said. “But also, when we think of the Asian market from the business standpoint and how we are going to get sponsors and sell broadcasting rights and all that, having Asian players will be part of our international strategies and this will be the start of it.”
Young Filipino star guard Thirdy Ravena became the first player to join the B. League using the Asian spot rule when he signed with the San-en NeoPhoenix. The Shinshu Brave Warriors have acquired South Korean forward Yang Jae-min as well.
The league has also raised the number of imports that are allowed to be registered for each game from two to three.
While Shimada expects the revised import player rule to raise the level of the domestic game, he does acknowledge that Japanese players will have to fight harder for playing time.
“Possibly, there will be cases where Japanese players are not able to play,” Shimada said. “If that happens, the values (of those players) could drop or they might have to accept lower salaries, or even get released from their teams.”
While basketball is undoubtedly one of Japan’s most rapidly growing sports and the country has produced international stars such as Rui Hachimura, it is still a long way from becoming a part of the sporting landscape like baseball and soccer have achieved.
Shimada recognizes the work needed in order to reduce the gap between those rival sports, which are broadcast more often and get significantly more media exposure.
“We’ve got to take that humbly,” Shimada said. “We hear people say that our national teams are getting better or the B. League has grown so much in such a short time. I think those are true.
“But in terms of our business scale and the volume of media exposure, we still have room to grow. When it comes down to whether our players are recognized, they are known in the basketball circle, but to the general public they are not like the baseball players.
“I told (our employees) when I assumed the post that we are totally wrong if we think we are doing well. I told them that we need to make our sport major and become a presence that’s recognized by the public in Japan.”