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Friday, Aug. 20, 2010

HOOP SCOOP

Time for bj-league to slow down on expansion


In a mad rush to expand, the bj-league is ignoring a number of real concerns, including the pressing need to aggressively market itself in Tokyo, this nation's entertainment, government, financial and media capital.

Ed Odeven

Maybe you've heard prospective ownership groups in Chiba and Iwate Prefectures are among those interested in gaining a new expansion franchise for the 2011-12 season, and an announcement is scheduled for Aug. 26.

If two new teams are added, and if none of the current 16 clubs goes out of business, the bj-league will have 18 clubs during its seventh season. But according to a league news release, it appears only one team will be added for the 2011-12 season; of course, there's time for the league to change its mind and try to keep an even number of teams.

Both prefectures would be good markets for expansion teams. A team based in Morioka, for instance, would be the only pro game in town during the long, cold Tohoku winter months. And a Chiba club could develop a natural rivalry with the Saitama Broncos and Tokyo Apache. (Kanagawa, Nagano and Kagoshima groups are also among those in the running for an expansion franchise.)

Stories appeared in Japanese newspapers last week about the Iwate Prefecture group's plans to find sponsors in hopes of being awarded an expansion team for the 2011-12 seasons. Reporters also noted that Hiromu Ikeda, the bj-league chairman, met with local businessmen to discuss specifics of the Iwate group's bid.

Expansion can be a good thing for any business, creating local jobs and enhancing the reputation of a product. But at some point, it's wise to slow down and take a look at what expansion has done to a business.

It's time for the bj-league to assess what it has accomplished — and, even more important, failed to accomplish — since 2005.

As one player who's been in the league since 2005 told me, "This league is weird, man. Can any Japanese player really make a living off the bj-league? Well, not make a living because most of the guys get by, but I mean long-term stuff — pensions and all that."

Several teams, league sources say, tried to cut their expenses by 50 percent during the 2009-10 season from the previous season's budget. Whether these teams reached their target, is unclear, but the budget cuts dictate a growing problem — a few teams have made profits, but the league as a whole is not a financially viable operation.

Exhibit A: Coaching instability. Of the 16 head coaches under contract for the 2010-11 season, only five — five! — of them started last season as their current team's bench boss. And the new cost-saving trend for some clubs is to hire the youngest possible coach.

Change for change's sake is sometimes good, but wholesale changes can damage a league's reputation in the long run. Fans can lose interest when there's a revolving door and players and coaches come and go like the four seasons.

Example: A Japanese blogger from Kyoto who ran a terrific site with lots of action photos, images of fans and the scenes from the stands, called "I Love This League," during the 2008-09 season didn't bother to maintain the site last season. The Web site no longer exists.

I asked this gentleman why he's no longer a rabid fan. He said he's lost interest and respect for the league.

Others have expressed similar sentiments, saying commissioner Toshimitsu Kawaguchi and his cronies only care about money and that greed has destroyed whatever credibility they had after breaking away from the old guard — the JBL — to form their own pro league.

Longtime NHL referee Bruce Hood's excellent memoir, "Calling The Shots," discussed the diluted level of talent in the league during its era of rapid expansion in the late 1960s (from the Original Six to 12 in one year, 1967; and by 1974, there were 18 NHL clubs).

"It seems the league lost sight of the most important thing of all — the game," Hood wrote in 1988.

The previous sentence aptly describes the current situation in the bj-league.

Indeed, Japan is a populous nation. Basketball is a growing sport, but this nation simply doesn't have enough average or above-average players to fulfill the expansion-happy wishes of the bj-league's inner circle.

More than half of the Japanese players in the bj-league cannot be expected to be major contributors to their respective teams — not yet anyway; they aren't good enough. There simply aren't enough good coaches at the lower levels and enough quality competition at the collegiate level to prepare the players for the pro game at the current rate of expansion.

The prudent thing to do is this: Wait two or three years and then proceed with expansion. This will give the league, the fans and the media time to adjust to all the changes that have already taken place, and it will create a more competitive, balanced, better league.

So much energy now is spent getting acclimated to names and faces, new venues for games and new sponsors. As a result, teams and the league cannot devote nearly enough energy to promoting the league and working on improving the game.

Instead, expansion talk — a big distraction — continues despite the league's need to slow down.

And that's a big mistake.

* * * * *

Surprisingly, Japan finished runnerup in the FIBA Asia Stankovic Cup last week end in Beirut, falling 97-59 to host Lebanon in the championship game.

Fine job by first-year coach Tom Wisman, the former Link Tochigi Brex pilot, guiding his team to the finals.

Forward Kosuke Takeuchi, who had 12 points and 20 rebounds in an overtime win against Qatar in the semifinals, and two-time defending JBL scoring champion Takuya Kawamura are the go-to players on this squad. They gained valuable international experience playing for Zeljko Pavlicevic's squad during the 2006 FIBA World Championship in Japan.

Kawamura scored 31 points on Aug. 13 against Jordan, while Takumi Ishizaki had 25 in the same game.

Will Team Japan use this tournament's success as a springboard for the future?

Or will the JBA's history of instability and bureaucratic ineptitude cause the national team to take two steps backward in the next few years?

For what it's worth, the Wisman-led club has taken a step in the right direction, even if it's at a tournament that comes at a time when others are gearing up for worlds.

Japan failed to qualify for the 2010 FIBA World Championship, a 24-nation extravaganza that begins in a few days in Turkey. So, to reach the 2012 London Games, Japan would need to win the FIBA Asia Championship next year.

It's a tall task.



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