B.League helps basketball bounce back in Japan

Kevin McCullagh looks at the growth of the B. League, Japan's domestic basketball league, and considers whether it might be the country's biggest sports expansion of the Reiwa era.

Yudai Baba #6 of the Alvark Tokyo goes up for a dunk during the B.League Championship Final between Alvark Tokyo and Chiba Jets at Yokohama Arena on May 26, 2018 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan. (Photo by Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Five years ago, elite basketball in Japan was in a pitiful state. Two separate leagues had been competing with each other for 10 years to be the country’s top division. The upstart BJ League, with an American franchise-team model, was attempting to usurp the established National Basketball League, based on the traditional Japanese model of teams operated by the country’s major corporations. And the Japanese Basketball Association had been suspended by Fiba for failures of governance.

Today, the B.League, Japan’s single, undisputed league, is a poster-boy for the country’s sports industry. It is far from the biggest league in the country – basketball sits far behind baseball and football as the biggest team sports. The B.League’s B1 top tier had an average attendance of 3,078 in 2018-19, compared to 20,750 for football’s J1 League and 25,983 across the two regional divisions of Nippon Professional Baseball, both in 2019. But the B.League exudes energy, has a youthful audience and is growing quickly. Driving its commercial activity is B.Marketing, a smart, modern unit that manages commercial business for both the league and the JBA.

The B.League’s growth statistics are impressive. Attendance in the B1 League in 2018-19 was up 6.3 per cent on the previous season. Social media followers for official league accounts increased by an astounding 1,053 per cent between 2017 and 2018, to 4.7 million. The large increase was mostly due to the launch of accounts on Line, Japan’s biggest social messaging platform. League revenues were up 6.5 per cent between 2016-17 and 2018-19, to 4.9bn yen ($44m).

It is a remarkable turnaround in only three-and-a-half seasons. And the league has ambitious plans for the years ahead. Last year, it published Beyond 2020, a document outlining its aim to make the ‘Reiwa’ Japanese historical era, that began last year, the ‘era of basketball’. The document notes that the preceding Heisei era (1989-2019) had been the era of football, and before that baseball enjoyed growth in the Showa (1926-1989) era.

Reform process

The B.League’s change in fortunes owes much to basketball’s world governing body Fiba. In 2015, Fiba created a task force to get the JBA back on top of basketball governance in Japan. The task force was co-chaired by two experienced sports industry executives.

One was German basketball official Ingo Weiss, president of the German basketball federation and treasurer and executive board member at Fiba. The second was Saburō Kawabuchi, the former Japanese football international who revolutionised that sport in the country by launching the J.League, Japan’s first professional football league.

The task force’s jobs were to establish a single league structure in the country, modernise the JBA’s governance structures and improve the national teams.

Weiss and Kawabuchi set about creating a new professional league to replace the NBL and the BJ League. A three-division structure was created, with 18 teams each in the B1 and B2 divisions, a further nine in a third division, and promotion and relegation between the divisions. To gain entry, top-tier B1 League teams had to have a home venue with a capacity of 5,000, had to include their geographic location in their team name, and had to prove they were financially sound and had good governance structures. The team name stipulation marked a move away from the corporation-controlled teams of the past – Toyota Motors Alvark changed its name to Alvark Tokyo, for example.

The task force created the organisational and commercial structure for the league, including hiring a professional staff to commercialise it. They defined what commercial rights the league would sell centrally, and what rights would be owned by the teams.

B.Marketing senior manager Masahiko Masuda (Image credit: B.Marketing)

Masahiko Masuda, a senior manager at B.Marketing, tells SportBusiness that the predecessor leagues had been hobbled by a lack of commercial nous and power struggles between the leagues and clubs over control of rights revenue.

“Before we made the B.League, the Japanese league at the time also sold [media and marketing] rights, but couldn’t maximise their value,” he says. “The power balance was wrong – clubs wanted to keep too much commercial revenue for themselves. We constructed a better connection between the league and teams.”

A critical early win for the new league was a media rights and sponsorship deal with Japanese conglomerate Softbank, announced in March 2016. The deal was reported by local media to be for four seasons, from 2016-17 to 2019-20, and to be worth in the range ¥12bn-14bn ($110m-$127m/€101m-€118m) in total.

Masuda would not comment on the value of the deal, but says it was important in getting buy-in from clubs for the new league: “With the Softbank deal, we succeeded in maximising our rights revenues. That made a good connection with the teams; work between the teams and the league was smoother after that.”

Cheerleaders of Alvark Tokyo celebrate after defeating Chiba Jets 85-60 to win the 2019 B. League final (Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Learning from the best

The new B.League commercial team studied best practice in sports marketing from around the world, with lessons from the NBA and Major League Soccer in the US proving most influential, Masuda says.

B.Marketing, the league and federation commercial arm, was modelled on MLS’s Soccer United Marketing, the marketing arm of Major League Soccer and the United States Soccer Federation.

It was clear to the commercial team that they had to focus heavily on digital platforms to promote the league and engage the young fans it was targeting. It adopted a ‘mobile first’ policy, attempting as far as possible to deliver content and services to fans via mobile. A mobile-based match ticketing system was created and care was taken to ensure league websites were mobile-user-friendly.

Choosing Softbank as a media rights partner also signalled the commitment to digital. It meant the league would be distributing its live video content exclusively via an OTT and mobile platform rather than via linear television. All B.League top division B1 and second division B2 games are streamed live on Basket LIVE, a website and app created by Softbank.

Since OTT sports operator DAZN took over Softbank’s sports rights portfolio in 2018, DAZN has also streamed all B1 and B2 games on its own platform. Basket LIVE content, including live B1 games, is also available via Amazon Prime.

Going exclusively with Softbank was, Masuda admits, not entirely the league’s choice. It would have liked coverage on one of Japan’s major broadcasters, but was an unproven property and in no position to secure a significant rights fee and extensive coverage.

“It’s not easy for sports to get broadcast on Japanese TV,” he says. “On the biggest channels, there will only be major games of baseball or soccer. So for basketball it’s very difficult – not only to earn money but even to get coverage. So we decided to focus on OTT. We wanted TV too, but found a different way because it was difficult.”

B.Marketing has also created a central sponsorship structure for the league. Softbank is the sole Top Partner. There are four B.League Partners – music publisher Sony Music, technology company Fujitsu, postal service Japan Post and electronics company Casio.

And there are seven Supporting Companies, who are mostly suppliers – ball supplier Molten, newspaper The Asahi Shimbun, referee wear supplier Hanes Brands, Yahoo! Japan, bank Nomura, precious metals products manufacturer Tanaka and real estate company House Mate Partners.

(Takashi Aoyama/Getty Images)

Beyond 2020

This is a landmark year for the B.League, the first of the ‘second phase’ of the league’s development under the Beyond 2020 plan. Its goals for the second phase include:

  • Upgrading the mobile ticketing system to include features such as 3D maps of arenas and a secondary ticket market
  • Launching new media products for fans, including games
  • Starting to earn revenue from international media rights sales
  • Increasing its influence in Asian basketball, including by exporting its expertise in league management and governance to other territories
  • Forging better connections between its clubs and their local areas, including helping schools to develop talent.

A third phase is envisaged, beginning in 2026, in which further developments are planned, most significantly scrapping promotion and relegation and replacing them with a team licensing system to ensure that clubs are of high quality on and off the court. European basketball’s EuroLeague operates on a similar model.

It is not only the B.League that is generating positivity around basketball in Japan at present. National team player Rui Hachimura this season became only the second ever Japanese to be drafted into the NBA, selected by the Washington Wizards in the first draft. And in 2023, Japan will co-host the Fiba World Cup along with Indonesia and the Philippines.

The men’s national team remains a work in progress, after a poor showing at last year’s Fiba World Cup in China, where it lost all five games. A big improvement will be hoped for at this year’s home Olympics tournament in Tokyo.

Nevertheless, the B.League’s growth gives hope that basketball can indeed be Japanese sport’s biggest growth story of the Reiwa era.

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