The San-en NeoPhoenix were a five-win team last year — by far the worst team in the top division of the B. League.
In line with expectations, the Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture-based team’s struggles continued in an extremely difficult opening weekend.
The NeoPhoenix competed their first series of the 2020-21 season against the powerhouse Chiba Jets Funabashi at home — without any of their imports that they had signed to rebuild the team for this year or even their head coach.
San-en fell 83-65 and 103-54 to the star-studded Jets, fielding an all-Japanese starting five that lacked size in both games.
The NeoPhoenix brought in Serbian Branislav Vicentic as their new bench boss as well as point guard Nenad Miljenovic and center/forward Stevan Jelovac, both from Serbia as well. But because of the Japanese government’s travel restrictions, none could not make it in time for the season-opening series.
The trio finally arrived in Japan on Friday and will have to complete two weeks of quarantine before they will officially be registered.
San-en wasn’t the only team affected by the travel restrictions. In fact, most of the teams that hired new imports over the offseason missed those players this past weekend.
The Kawasaki Brave Thunders and Hiroshima Dragonflies were the only B1 League teams that had their full squads.
To help ease the situation, the B. League introduced an emergency regulation that allowed teams to sign alternative foreigners to short-term contracts. Those deals will be terminated when imports whose arrivals have been delayed are registered.
Import players have been a big part of the B. League and their success can affect clubs’ records and ultimately increase their chances for the league title, making their status an important matter for all teams.
But, in part because the majority of import players are likely to join their teams within the next few weeks, a few teams managed to stay positive during the opening weekend.
Last Friday, the Alvark Tokyo defeated the Brave Thunders 85-79 despite missing two of their imports, Kevin Jones and Deshaun Thomas. They played without any foreign players at some points during the contest but managed to come up with the win over Kawasaki, which had four foreign-born players including naturalized star Nick Fazekas.
Admitting his team was missing significant pieces, Alvark captain and point guard Seiya Ando emphasized that it was a team win with his squad feeling a sense of urgency.
“It was a big win for us,” Ando said after the game. “And if we keep it up, we will be even better when our remaining import players join the team.”
In Utsunomiya, the inaugural league champion Brex posted back-to-back wins against the Ryukyu Golden Kings. The Brex are still awaiting the arrival of former Georgetown University wingman L.J. Peak, who played for the United States at the 2015 FIBA U-19 World Championship.
Head coach Ryuzo Anzai was hesitant to say how much of an upgrade the American would be to his roster, preferring to wait to see how well he gels with his new teammates.
“He might improve our team and degrade the team,” Anzai said after his side’s 73-61 victory at Brex Arena Utsunomiya on Saturday. “Our playing times will be scattered with his participation and it might not work well for us.”
But Anzai welcomed competition among his players with the arrival of Peak, suggesting that internal battles generally make a team better.
“When L.J. comes, competitions will kick off and hopefully he’ll threaten (stars Makoto) Hiejima and (Yusuke) Endo,” he said. “But if he won’t fit into our team, we already have a potent squad as of now, so we are going to make the best decision we have available. But we have a potential to win the championship and will manage to fit (Peak) into our team somehow.”
Another notable takeaway from opening weekend was the variance in attendance figures.
Like Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League, the B. League is following the government’s guidelines and limiting attendance to 50 percent capacity.
At the aforementioned Brex-Golden Kings game, the hosts allowed 2,114 fans into the gym, which has a full capacity of about 4,800. In other words, roughly 45 percent of the stands were packed, and the crowd felt packed due to the shape of the arena and the seating arrangements.
Elsewhere, the Osaka Evessa drew only 1,376 and 1,471 fans in their two-game series against Hiroshima at the 7,000-capacity Ookini Arena Maishima.
Ticket sales have been a key part of business strategies for the Brex. As is the case for many other clubs in the circuit, the pandemic-related attendance limits could put the Brex in financial peril.
A Brex official said that they and other professionally formed teams — unlike teams with corporate backgrounds such as the Alvark (Toyota) and Sunrockers Shibuya (hitachi) — are desperate to sell as many tickets as they can to generate enough revenue to make their club operations stable.
“We and Chiba are in similar situations,” the official said.
In the 2018-19 season, the Brex topped the entire league in ticketing revenue with ¥433 million ($4.1 million), followed by the Jets’ ¥416 million ($3.9 million). Gate receipts covered 31.7 percent of Utsunomiya’s ¥1.37 billion ($12.96 million) in overall revenue — significantly higher than the B1 average of 22.1 percent.
But despite challenges, the league’s ability to safely launch its season was positive, providing live hoop action to fans for the first time since the 2019-20 campaign was abruptly called off in late March.
“I’m happy we could start the season without problems,” Sunrockers star guard Leo Vendrame said after a 89-87 loss to the SeaHorses Mikawa at home on Sunday. “We, the players, and our fans have been waiting for this moment, and it felt great for us to perform before these fans.
“My heart beat faster when I made shots and I hadn’t felt it for a while. And all those things made me realize the season’s started.”