Now is the time to expand from 12 to 16 teams… “This is the only reason” why professional baseball is not as exciting as the big leagues.
Despite the success of Murakami and Sasaki and the hosting of the WBC…the declining presence of Japanese professional baseball
Following the youngest ever triple crown by Yakult’s Munetaka Murakami and a perfect game by Lotte’s Akinori Sasaki, the WBC coming up in March 2023 and the birth of the Hokkaido Ball Park, professional baseball in Japan has actually reached a plateau in terms of attendance, box office revenue, media exposure, and so on. Even taking into account the COVID-19 crisis, the presence of pro-baseball has been gradually declining, as if in step with the decline of Japan’s national power, as games are almost no longer broadcast live on terrestrial TV.
The Japan round of the WBC, which has already become a platinum ticket, is due more to the triumphant return of Shohei Otani and Yu Darvish, who are active in the Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States, than to the popularity of professional baseball.
Following these players, Kota Senga of Softbank and Masanao Yoshida of Orix will join the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox, respectively, next season, and along with the success of Otani and Darvish, the big league baseball is likely to receive more and more coverage in Japan.
Big League Earnings Surpass Pre-COVID-19 Crisis
Yakult’s Murakami also hopes to eventually play in the big leagues. What is so different between professional baseball and the big leagues, which attract top professional baseball players one after another?
First, there is the difference in their earning power. Before Corona, the entire MLB organization’s revenue for 2019 reached $10.7 billion (1.177 trillion yen), according to Forbes in the United States. According to the MLB Organization, with the introduction of the extra-inning tiebreaker and the expansion of teams making the postseason, MLB’s revenue this season is expected to reach $11.0 billion, more than it did before the Corona disaster. The MLB organization reports that the league’s revenue this season is closer to 11 billion dollars (about 1.65 trillion yen) than it was before the COVID-19 crisis.
The abundance of funds has created a virtuous cycle of attracting top players from all over the world, including Japan, with high salaries, and showing exciting, high-quality games to further increase the number of spectators and viewers. The source of this virtuous cycle is the expansion of the number of baseball teams.
Major League Baseball to Expand from 30 to 32 Teams
For a long time, the Major League Baseball had a total of 16 teams in the American League and the National League. Expansion began in 1961, with the number of teams increasing from 20 to 24 to 26 to 28, and in 1998, new teams were created in Arizona and Tampa Bay, bringing the total to the current 30 teams. In 1998, new teams were created in Arizona and Tampa Bay, bringing the total to the current 30. In other words, 14 teams were created as a result of the expansion, which now accounts for nearly half of the teams in the Major Leagues.
The expansion of the number of teams has expanded their home bases to North America, created new jobs for players and other workers, and spawned related businesses in the local markets. The playoffs will be more substantial, and the cards will be more diverse, attracting more fans.
Expansion is likely to continue further; Rob Manfred, commissioner of the MLB Organization, has been frequently reported as saying since taking office in 2015 that he will add two new teams in the near future. There has been a movement to attract a home base, including relocations from existing teams, in cities such as Las Vegas, Nashville, Portland, and Montreal, which have no big league teams.
Professional Baseball Expands from 12 to 16 Teams
What about Japanese professional baseball, by the way? The opponents are the familiar 12 teams. Although there are some exchange games, the usual Giants vs. Yakult and Seibu vs. Orix are not enough for baseball fans who are familiar with the rich matchups of the MLB, which has 30 teams, because of the success of Otani and Darvish.
Is it possible to expand the number of teams in professional baseball? As proposed by Sadaharu Oh, chairman of the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, a “2-league, 16-team system” with four new teams in Niigata, Shizuoka, Shikoku, and Okinawa, for example, would increase the number of matchups and liven up the Climax Series (CS), which has been strongly debated for its abolition due to its lack of freshness. By establishing franchises in areas where the existing 12 teams are not based, new fans would be attracted, and the increase in attendance and employment would contribute to the revitalization of not only professional baseball but also the local community. However, although there is a plan to add two new baseball teams, including Shizuoka, to the second team (farm league) starting in the 2024 season, vested interests are involved and no significant progress has been made.
Another possibility would be to retain the existing Central League and Pacific League, but reorganize the independent Shikoku Island League plus, BC League, and Kyushu Asian League to create a three-league system. It would also be fun to set up a tournament system, similar to the Emperor’s Cup in soccer, in which professional baseball, independent leagues, and winning teams from the adult and university leagues would participate, and play a cup game against the champion of the Japan Series.
Although ballparkization is progressing in professional baseball
In addition to the expansion of the baseball team as a measure for revitalization, there are many other measures to be taken, including the publication and use of various data on team and player performance using data analysis tools, enhancement of online distribution, appointment of outside management personnel, introduction of dynamic pricing and cashless system for ticket sales, expansion of season ticket sales, expansion of fan clubs, enhancement of the fan clubs, and expansion of pay-per-view broadcasting memberships. There are many things that need to be done to improve the appeal of professional baseball, including the enhancement of fan clubs, expansion of pay TV membership, introduction of VIP tickets to attract wealthy people, and management of broadcasting rights and licenses.
It is a good trend that the ball park concept is spreading in Japan. Nippon Ham’s new stadium, ESCON Field HOKKAIDO, which will open in March 2023, is a state-of-the-art 35,000-seat natural grass field with a retractable roof. It is a state-of-the-art stadium with a 35,000-seat natural grass field with a retractable roof. Tower Eleven, a five-story complex near the left-field pole, will include a hot spring, a mixed bath sauna, and a hotel, allowing visitors to soak in a hot spring while watching baseball games.
The Tokyo Dome, acquired by Mitsui Fudosan, is also expected to undergo a large-scale redevelopment project at Korakuen, including a new stadium for the Giants.
Bringing back exciting professional baseball by expanding the number of teams
The difference in profitability between Japanese and U.S. professional baseball is directly related to the state of society in the two countries. In Japan, where the birthrate is declining, the population is aging, and depopulation is increasing, the air of protecting vested interests prevails over reform, and professional baseball has been unable to escape from its gradual decline.
On the other hand, the big leagues continue to expand their teams, adopt cutting-edge technology and management techniques, and constantly innovate and increase profits. Of course, there is no need to imitate all of the big leagues, and not all of the big leagues are superior. Professional baseball has its own merits and its own thrills. However, it seems that there are things we can learn from the big leagues as well.
By expanding the number of teams, etc., new matchups can be realized in various regions of Japan, and a virtuous cycle of “excitement” → “want to go and watch” → “attract more customers and viewership” → “increase admission and broadcasting fees” → “increase profitability” → “further expansion and investment” → “more and more attractive” can be realized.
With such bright spots as the successes of Munetaka Murakami and pitcher Akinori Sasaki, the hosting of the WBC in March 2023, and the birth of the Hokkaido Ball Park, expanding the number of teams should help make professional baseball even more attractive.
Text by Katsuhide Takahashi： Katsuhide Takahashi
Born in Gifu Prefecture in 1969, Katsuhide Takahashi is the president of Malibu Japan Inc. and a financial consultant. After working for Mitsubishi Bank, Citigroup Securities, and Citibank, he established the company in 2013. He has visited more than 60 countries around the world. He is an expert on resorts in Japan and abroad, including the Bahamas, Maldives, Palau, Malibu, Los Cabos, Dubai, Hawaii, Niseko, Kyoto, and Okinawa. He graduated from Keio University in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in economics and received a master's degree in economics from Aoyama Gakuin University in 2000. His many publications include "Bank Zero Era" (Asahi Shimbun Publications), "Why Niseko Only Became a World Resort" (Kodansha + Alpha Shinsho), and "Jibanka Natsuki" (The Extinction of Regional Banks) (Heibonsha).