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The Yokohama DeNA BayStars have become one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s fastest-growing clubs over the last decade, and they have no plan to slow down anytime soon.

The 2021 season will mark the Central League team’s 10th anniversary since DeNA took over as its owner, and the BayStars are motivated to continue the growth of its fan base.

“We’ve gone through so many different things in the past 10 years,” BayStars president Shingo Okamura said Tuesday during a news conference at a Yokohama hotel. “Our team has grown year in and year out and advanced to the Climax Series and Japan Series. Unfortunately, we haven’t accomplished a (Japan Series) championship yet, but we have become a team that generates higher expectations.”

Under DeNA’s ownership, Yokohama has reached the postseason in 2016, 2017 and 2019, falling to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks in six games in the 2017 Japan Series.

The BayStars used to be known for wide swaths of empty seats at their Yokohama Stadium home. But the team’s popularity has skyrocketed thanks to efforts on and off the diamond to attract the interest of fans, including game-day events and other projects.

“Since ownership moved to DeNA, we’ve seen a growing number of fans coming to the stadium,” said the team’s former ace pitcher Daisuke Miura, who will make his managerial debut this year. “The stadium has been renovated and our team has gotten stronger. They made my retirement game an occasion to remember and in watching the team from the outside since retiring, I’ve thought they’ve really become a good team.”

In 2011, the final year under previous owner TBS Holdings, the club’s overall home attendance was 1,102,192. That number doubled to 2,283,524 in 2019 before COVID-19 forced drastic reductions to crowds across the country in 2020.

With the pandemic severely impacting business operations across NPB, teams are heading into the 2021 campaign expecting continued limitations to the number of spectators.

That’s why the BayStars are rallying its hardcore fans for support while proactively seeking to cultivate new fans, according to Okamura.

In one of its first projects to commemorate its decade under DeNA, the club will give away packages including a knapsack, minitowel and mouth cover to a total of 460,000 students at elementary and special support schools in Kanagawa Prefecture.

The BayStars carried out a similar project for their fifth anniversary, distributing baseball caps to local schoolchildren.

“It might also be the case for adults amid this pandemic, but each and every year is irreplaceable for the children and we want to provide them a little bit of a memory. We want them to live actively,” said Okamura, who assumed his post in 2016.

He emphasized that the BayStars want to be a team with firm roots in Yokohama and Kanagawa while also growing to represent NPB on a global scale.

“We want more people to think that they appreciate they have the BayStars around them, that they have us in Kanagawa,” Okamura said. “And we want people around the world to be aware of Yokohama and Kanagawa. When people think of Yokohama, we want them to automatically think of the BayStars. We want to be identified like that, like the Yankees in New York and FC Barcelona.”

BayStars president Shingo Okamura (second from right), new manager Daisuke Miura (center) and pitcher Shota Imanaga (second from left) present the team's 2021 slogan during a Tuesday news conference in Yokohama. | KAZ NAGATSUKA
BayStars president Shingo Okamura (second from right), new manager Daisuke Miura (center) and pitcher Shota Imanaga (second from left) present the team’s 2021 slogan during a Tuesday news conference in Yokohama. | KAZ NAGATSUKA

In order to achieve that, Okamura believes that his clubs will have to not only field a competitive team, but continue to push its business efforts in order to create global appeal.

“We would like to be evaluated in terms of the sports business we do, and not just in baseball nor in Japan,” Okamura said. “We want to draw attention with every single project we do.”

The biggest obstacle that the club will have to overcome will perhaps be the coronavirus, which has hit so many sports teams around the world.

“We are going to have to go about our business with the assumption that the coronavirus pandemic will continue to affect it in the next few years,” Okamura said. “We earn a big chunk of our revenue from our ticket sales but we can’t expect that for the time being.

“But (DeNA) is an IT company and we are hoping to deliver excitement through virtual methods.”

Yet in the end, winning a championship remains the easiest way to raise a pro team’s profile and would be the ultimate 10-year anniversary gift for fans.

“If we can’t win with the best fans in Japan behind us, it’s the responsibility of us, the players,” Yokohama’s left-handed hurler Shota Imanaga, the new head of the team’s player union, said. “So we want to win the championship this year and not make them wait.”

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