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Learning from the Japanese

Aside from the NBA-level talents, Japan’s B.League has also been one of the best run, best marketed, and most profitable leagues in the continent.

Enzo Flojo

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As someone who works for the International Basketball Federation, I get to meet people who are connected with the basketball teams and federations across the globe.

In the process, I got exposed to and learned how basketball is not only played, but also managed, marketed and grown in various contexts.

It’s a truly an enriching experience to go through that on a regular basis because seeing how other countries “do basketball” prompts a self-introspection about how we do it here in the Philippines as well, and, perhaps more importantly, it opens up opportunities to align Philippine basketball with global standards and push it even further into the leading edge of the sport. I had one such chance a couple of weekends ago when I met two officials of the B.League — Japan’s equivalent of the Philippine Basketball Association (PBA).

I sat down over lunch with Chihiro Saito and Kazumasa Ashihara.

Chihiro is the B.League’s strategy group manager while Kazumasa is the managing director and is an executive board member of the Japan Basketball Association (JBA), which is the equivalent of the Samahang Basketbol ng Pilipinas (SBP).

They were in town for a couple of days mainly to try and see if any possible linkages can be made with the SBP and the PBA, especially in terms of possibly bringing Filipino talents to the B.League and maybe working to further raise the level of play in the East Asian region.

Right off the bat, it was apparent that the JBA and the B.League — through Chihiro and Kazumasa — were approaching basketball from a framework rarely seen in this part of the international hoops landscape.

They wanted not just to explore possible expansions for the B.League. They also wanted to see how the B.League, and Japanese basketball in general, could spark a revolution in Asian hoops.

They are in an ideal position, of course, especially considering how one of their best players — Rui Hachimura — is among the hottest rookies in the ongoing NBA regular season.

Other young Japanese studs who turned a lot of heads in the United States are Yuta Watanabe, who has seen action for the Memphis Grizzlies, and Yudai Baba, who is with the Texas Legends and is hoping to crack a roster spot for the Dallas Mavericks soon.

Aside from the NBA-level talents, Japan’s B.League has also been one of the best run, best marketed, and most profitable leagues in the continent.

Opening in 2016, the B.League was initially formed as a “unifying entity” that combined the old Japan-NBL (National Basketball League) and BJ (Basketball Japan) League. This came as a direct result of Japan’s FIBA suspension in 2014, where the international governing body had to step in to “fix” the issues that held the development of Japanese basketball back.

Fast forward to 2019, though, and the B.League has become the finest turnaround story in Asian professional sports leagues. It can also be argued that the B.League has, despite being in only its fourth season, become a model pro league for other Asian federations to be inspired by.

To date, the B.League has enjoyed an average live attendance growth of eight percent per year with total revenue, combined using JBA revenue, league revenue and club revenue, averaging 26 percent in the same span of time.

What a surprise, yes?

A professional sports league in Asia is actually earning money and not bleeding.

The JBA and the B.League, however, are not satisfied.

They want to raise their game even more in the next phase of their growth. As Japan’s basketball officials look beyond 2020, they have the following objectives:

1. Develop more than 10 world-class basketball arenas by 2030 in 10 different cities like Okinawa, Toyohashi, Shiga, Kawasaki, Chiba, Mikawa, Saga and Kagawa.

2. Maximize the ever-evolving digital marketing opportunities, with the over-arching goal of increasing their consistent user-base to millions.

3. Become a bona fide media company. Yes, the B.League is working towards becoming its own media company like what the NBA has done in the States with strong emphasis on fan interaction and participation.

4. Revitalize Japanese basketball and expand the Japanese basketball family. The B.League wants to lead the continued growth of the sport in Japan’s local communities, using all avenues and platforms like schools, parks, shopping centers, mobile technology, and even health care.

And, perhaps the most exciting for me as an Asian basketball super fan:

5. Launch the Asian Strategy. The B.League recognizes the growth of basketball in Asia, and it wants to leverage this by trying to broadcast B.League games abroad, have international fans go to Japan to watch the B.League, and help other Asian leagues by sharing the B.League’s excellent framework.

I find all these lofty goals very exciting and for a local Asian league to even aspire to reach these objectives is meaningfully inspiring.

Chihiro and Kazumasa were planning to meet with PBA commissioner Willie Marcial on the same day I had lunch with them.

I can only hope that they were able to not only learn much from the PBA, but also spark a strong desire for our domestic league to consider some elements of the B.League’s model that can potentially help Philippine basketball grow even more.

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