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Thursday, June 21, 2007

HOOP SCOOP

Yano, Rawl pursue new path to sporting success

HeatDevils defy conventional thinking with new partnership, hope to spark big changes in Japan


The first real innovator in human history invented the wheel, ushering in an era of lighter workloads and easier trips. Others have made notable contributions: Thomas Edison perfected the light bulb; Johannes Gutenberg gave us the printing press; and Wilbur and Orville Wright demonstrated that airplanes could fly.

Ed Odeven

These daring individuals shared one common trait: they weren't afraid of failure.

Oita Heat Devils president Hirofumi Yano and Vince Rawl, an investor from Texas, possess the same mental fortitude. In other words, they aren't afraid to defy conventional wisdom.

So what's their objective? Change the landscape of sports in Japan.

How so? They have formed a partnership that ushers in a new era in Japan, an era where it's OK for Japan-based professional sports teams to have foreign owners and investors.

Until June, this never happened. Not in Nippon Professional Baseball, not in the J. League, not in the JBL Super League, not in Japan's other pro sporting ventures.

This is significant.

By shaking hands and signing on the dotted line, they have taken a big, bold step.

"I hope my investment will open the door for other investors to start considering Japan as a viable, investment vehicle," said Rawl, a 47-year-old University of Texas graduate, in an exclusive interview with The Japan Times last Friday.

Rawl is shelling out $1.5 million of his own cash in 2007 to put the wheels in motion for this partnership and become a co-owner of the HeatDevils.

"Yano-san has tremendous courage," Rawl said, sizing up the situation. "He was the first one to actually reach out and look for outside investment or foreign investment for the bj-league. . . . We are going on our third season now, we are in the black, a lot of the teams in the league are under-capitalized and I'm hoping my involvement here will open the door for increased foreign investment in Japan for sports leagues.

"There are various sports in Japan that are embryonic at this point and they need to find other sources of income or other sources of revenue to expand their operation."

News photo
Hirofumi Yano, left, and Vince Rawl are the new co-owners of Oita Basketball Communication Co., Ltd., which runs the bj-league's Oita HeatDevils. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

* * * * *

Former University of Hawaii basketball player Jerald Wrightsil, who played professionally in Austria, Turkey and Japan, helped make the Rawl-Yano partnership possible.

Wrightsil's basketball ties to Japan are strong. He first came here in 1988 to play for the Mazda team in the JBL and also suited up for Efini and Aichi Kikai, as well as serving as the coach for Mazda and Kyodoseki Oil in the early 1990s. In recent years, he has built a successful sports management company, Team XPress International, Inc., helping American players find jobs as players overseas, including Japan.

He has worked closely with Yano and the HeatDevils.

"Jerald and I have a good relationship and most people that Jerald's introduced me to have great qualities, so I trusted him," Yano said during our hourlong conversation.

"I also heard that Mr. Rawl also has had a lot of success with his businesses, so at that point I was confident we could form a great relationship."

In Austin, Texas, where Wrightsil is one of Rawl's neighbors and close friends, Rawl has established himself as a successful investor in a diversified range of businesses.

Listen to Rawl explain his approach:

"I've had a lot of success in helping businesses grow in Austin. I've been involved in several start-ups as well with my (Palos Verdes Holding Corporation) partner Michael Terrazas.

"What we've done and what our philosophy is, is we start small and build upon our success. We lay a foundation and we take a measured approach to achieving a goal that we set five, 10 years downstream. We've been very successful in the restaurant business, bar business, land acquisition, real-estate development, hotels. . . . It's just been a philosophy: take a measured approach with a good foundation and set a goal that's achievable.

"You hit that goal and you raise the bar a little bit."

So why is now the right to make an investment in the bj-league?

The bj-league's expansion from six teams in its inaugural season of 2005-06, to eight last season, to 10 for the coming season (with new teams in Fukuoka and Okinawa) is a strong indicator of the league's staying power and leadership at the top, guided by commissioner Toshimitsu Kawachi's progressive mind-set.

"There are certain times when a business will outgrow its original capitalization, and will need another round of capital to achieve a long-term goal," said Rawl, who describes himself as a lifelong sports fan.

He added: "See, I look at things through developing markets, developing economies. I have a lot of securities and investments in emerging markets such as China, Korea, Thailand that have done very well for me over the years. So I sort of have become enamored of that approach. There is no get-rich quick (plan). . . Now the bj-league and Mr. Yano seemed like a very good fit to me because it's an emerging market."

He cites Major League Soccer, the WNBA and NBA Development League in recent years as parallels and the NFL and NBA in their early stages as good examples of leagues that fit the bill as emerging markets.

"This is my first foray into the sports world, but again it does fit my profile: emerging markets, starting with low cap and growth, because here the downside is very minimal for me, the upside is enormous," Rawl said.

And so Rawl and the 50-year-old Yano agreed to meet halfway around the world on April 27 in Rawl's hometown of Austin, Texas.

They discussed business. They had dinner. E-mails and correspondence followed, with Wrightsil serving as the their liaison.

But, first and foremost, both made a strong impression.

Said Rawl: "First of all, (Yano) gave me a very, very good presentation that outlined himself and the team in sort of broad strokes. He was nervous, I was nervous because this is a big deal. We were both trying to be as straight forward as possible, which we did accomplish. He is very easy to talk to, and I am, too."

They talked about forming a partnership to promote basketball and Oita Prefecture (Oita and Austin, Texas, coincidentally, are sister cities; the same is true of Beppu City, where the HeatDevils play, and Beaumont, Texas).

"We want to change Beppu not only into an international tourism city but also a sports city, too, at the same time," Yano declared. "We discussed our future vision and Mr. Rawl concurred.

"We have the same way of thinking, the same vision. I liked him because of that."

* * * * *

Last week, Rawl gave several interviews to the Japanese media during which the words "Why Oita?" were repeated.

"What I tell them is Yano-san and I, we share a vision," Rawl said. "He's considered sort of a renegade and so am I in a lot of ways. We share a vision of not only just sports, but using sports to increase tourism in the prefecture with teams, community involvement (and) reaching out to the general population and showing them a model for success.

"Yano-san is a leader. He doesn't just follow the pack. He's one that's ahead of the pack, and what we are going to have them do is all trying to live up to our standards.

"That is what attracted me to Yano-san in the first place."

Throughout the lengthy interview, Rawl spoke in a confident, relaxed manner. Furthermore, he expresses nothing but excitement about his future involvement as an owner, about attending the HeatDevils' shareholders meeting in September, the team's first game in November and watching an Oita Trinita soccer match with Katsusada Hirose, the governor of Oita Prefecture.

Rawl plans to visit Japan five or six times a year.

In the meantime, the two are busy putting their stamp on the way the HeatDevils will operate in the future.

The team will begin a community-ownership program in October, meaning fans will be able to buy shares of the team.

The NFL's Green Bay Packers have employed this successful model for decades. Consadole Sapporo, a J. League team, run a similar program.

Yano said: "I've already met the chairman of that community ownership program and we've already spoken. If I'm correct, the population of Green Bay is about the same as Beppu." Beppu City and Green Bay both have populations of more than 100,000, "so that's the type of business model that we look up to."

Rawl added: "Everybody who's a season ticketholder in Green Bay is a shareholder in the Packers, and that breeds a lot of loyalty among your fans and also it's a good business model. It brings the community in, it brings other investment in as well.

"That's the sort of involvement we want to have with our region, with our community, and we feel that is a very close parallel to what we are doing here."

Enthusiastically, Rawl and Yano have jumped into the great unknown with a refreshing outlook that defies conventional wisdom, a business model that is, well, a leap of faith.

And that's a good thing.

"This to me is an opportunity," Rawl concluded. "It's not only a business opportunity, but an opportunity to change the landscape, not just in basketball but this will change, I believe, soccer, volleyball, indoor soccer, you name it, any professional sport in Japan that has resisted foreign investment will look at Yano-san and myself and say, 'Hey, wow, these guys did it. Why can't we?' "



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