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Sunday, Jan. 21, 2007
IBL looking to become part of basketball boom in Japan
By ED ODEVEN
It's an exciting time for basketball in Japan.
Fans can still recall the 2006 FIBA World Championship, which was won by Spain in an inspiring, storybook triumph without its star, Pau Gasol.
The bj-league is just days away from its first-ever All-Star Game in Okinawa.
The JBL is in preparation mode to launch its own professional league in the near future.
And the International Basketball League, with headquarters in Portland, Ore., is in talks with Japanese business groups about bringing an expansion franchise here.
Wait a minute. Timeout. Minor-league basketball in Japan, say what?
IBL commissioner Mikal Duilio left Japan on Tuesday, but not before a conversation about his ambitious plans.
"I want to have the league be strong before we come to Japan," Duilio said during an exclusive lunchtime interview with The Japan Times. "Right now the league is getting strong in that respect.
Sounds far-fetched, you might say, but the IBL's unique business approach is, well, working.
The league was launched in 2005 with 17 teams and expanded to 24 the next year. Twenty-six clubs, most of which are grouped in clusters in the Pacific Northwest and in the Midwest, will play the 2007 season.
International expansion is planned for 2008, with plans in place for expansion teams in England and Canada, too, in the near future.
While in Tokyo, Duilio made contact with Sadachika Yoshioka, a business liaison with strong basketball connections in North America, Europe and Japan, whom he was introduced to by the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO).
Their ongoing discussions will certainly include talk of sponsors and investors, marketing a new team and a myriad of other big details.
The league wants to add a second Japanese team in 2009 and a third in 2010.
"In any other league, this wouldn't work," the 37-year-old Duilio says.
But, for starters, this is what you need to know about the IBL: Teams must take just one round-trip airplane trip per year. It's referred to as the one-flight guarantee. That, naturally, saves thousands of dollars.
"There's a lot of people that go into sports with the pie-in-the-sky philosophy, but really it's a mathematical thing," Duilio says. "You've got expenses and revenue, and revenue is hard to get, so you better keep your expenses low. And if revenue does come and you exceed your expenses, great, you have more money to market with. It's always good to keep expenses low in any business."
In a nutshell, that is what's made the IBL work in an era when the entertainment options are endless.
"For us to be aggressive in going international might be a little bit out there right now, but it won't be for our fourth year," says Duilio, whose league is collaborating with Viacom to produce a new weekly TV show called "Return of the Fastbreak."
IBL teams' operating expenses range from $70,000 to $400,000 per year, according to Duilio.
"There is an owner in America, a few of them, that have an entire staff, everybody around that team, (that) is a volunteer," he says. "Even the venue is almost donated. Five or six of the teams do that.
"In that sense they can run for a very low break-even (cost). But there are also teams that just do it normal -- you pay your staff and so on."
IBL teams will play 24 games next year. But the Japanese team will start its season a few weeks later, in May, to avoid interfering with the bj-league and the JBL, Duilio says.
This underscores the point that he doesn't want the IBL to be seen as a thorn in the side of the other Japanese hoops leagues.
"I think the IBL will be so much fun that it will actually help the other basketball organizations, JABBA and the bj-league, because we will inspire people to like basketball," says Duilio. " . . . So I am hoping that they work with us and I am hoping that of the three teams that we are going to have in Japan, I hope one arises out of the bj-(league) and one arises out of JABBA.
Duilio envisions the first Japanese expansion team being comprised of four foreign players living in Japan, four bj-league players and four from the JBL.
It would play a 22-game slate in 2008, 12 home contests (American teams would come here and play two games against the Japanese team on their one 2008 airplane trip) and 10 on the road during a 16-day road trip to the Pacific Northwest.
Here's the proposed breakdown of that trip: fly to Seattle or Portland, rest for a day and then start the 10-game road trip on a Friday, followed by games on Saturday and Sunday; the next Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; and close it out the next week with contests on Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
(There's a short distance between the league's Pacific Northwest cities, an average of about 150 km, which makes travel on the roads between Seattle and Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, for instance, quite manageable.)
It's worthwhile, too, for Japanese players with a jump shot and a dream of joining Yuta Tabuse in America, vying for a spot in the NBA someday.
"It would appeal to the young Japanese player who would want to test it out and really see how far he can go with this: to go overseas in front of other teams' crowds and play 10 games against American teams and do your best and head home," says Duilio.
"I think the appeal to the player would not be the money, because our league is not in that position. It takes time to get there and we are still building. It would just be the experience. And we make that clear to players."
IBL players cannot boast of making NBA-like salaries. They earn $100 to $300 per game and that salary structure probably won't change drastically next season.
"The tradeoff for the players is it is a chance for them to go to America and play 10 games in front of different cities and scouts," Duilio says, citing one rationale that surely will come up time and again for the Japan team's players.
The promoter in Duilio also has big ambitions for the 2008 Japanese team.
"For this team, we'll try to bring out at least one or two big names," he says. "We are not sure who, but we would talk to some people, ex-NBA players perhaps, and find out who has an interest. . . .
"It's only a two-month commitment; somebody perhaps famous in exchange for something that the league can do for them. We are not sure what it would be, but we would like this team to have a little of everything. It would be a real entertaining option."
Duilio, who earned a master's degree in public administration from Iowa State University in 1992, adheres to two principles which give his league distinction: the aforementioned one-flight guarantee and a strict adherence to a high-scoring game.
"The IBL philosophy is that basketball should be an athletic game that ebbs and flows rather than tiptoes along in unnatural stops and starts," says Duilio. "A basketball game loses its athleticism, flow and perspective when the game lasts more than two hours."
To speed up the game, the IBL features a 22-second shot clock, an immediate inbounds policy and one timeout per team per quarter.
"We'll go watch a game and it will be 90-90 and you throw those two rules in there and the same game will be 120-120," Duilio says.
So how did Duilio develop this view of the game?
In his teens, he established and ran the Indianola Jamball League in Iowa for seven years.
After college, he moved to Portland and started an adult recreational basketball league as a business.
PortlandBasketball.com is now, he says, the world's largest adult rec league.
"I've watched thousands and thousands of games and I started noticing these two trends: that when the game keeps moving, the offensive players can get hot," he says. "I put those two rules in play to keep the game moving, and then offensive players got hot. Our league is hot. Guys shoot great in our league . . . and the defense just goes down a notch from a disproportionate level to a normal defense.
"It's this huge shift based on two tiny rules."
The IBL teams averaged 127.0 points per game in the inaugural 2005 season. In the league's second season, teams put 126.4 ppg on the board.
Duilio models the IBL on the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers' Showtime style of play.
He says that nowadays one -- just one -- NBA team consistently plays the kind of basketball he likes: the Phoenix Suns.
And, he adds, Mike D'Antoni's hands-off approach lets the Suns maintain the free-wheeling, improvisational (jazz-like) style that leads to more points.
Having this IBL team play games in the United States and Japan could prove to be an enticing marketing strategy for companies
" . . . When this team goes to America it can push some of (Japan's) own cultural products and vice versa," Duilio says. "So that's another reason why this is feasible -- not just that it's one flight, which means that it's efficient, and that it's a fun product, so we can get an audience -- but it's also something that could be attractive, maybe not wildly attractive, but it could appeal to certain sponsors.
"It could even appeal to the business that does business in both, like Toyota, which is big in both. So maybe Toyota says, 'This is great. We can promote in both countries with the same team.' "
Big companies never hurt to boost a league's prestige. And some big-name players have been a part of the IBL during its infancy.
Former NBA star point guard Tim Hardaway played on the league's Opening Night in 2005 and scored 50 points in a double-OT victory.
Rebounding maestro/eccentric icon Dennis Rodman has suited up in an IBL jersey in the past.
Acrobatic forward Cedric Ceballos will play for the Phoenix Flame this season (joining him on the squad will be Tony "Get It" Jones, who plays for the Tokyo Apache.)
For the proposed Japanese team, securing a host venue for 2008 is the biggest obstacle right now. But if this league's quick rise to respectability is an indication of Duilio's business acumen, don't be surprised if the team makes a smooth transition to the IBL during its inaugural season.