Nippon Professional Baseball returns to action

The opening ceremony of the Japanese professional baseball match between Seibu and Nippon Ham is seen amid empty stadium seating at the Metlife Dome in Tokorozawa, Saitama prefecture on June 19, 2020. (Photo by STR / JIJI PRESS / AFP via Getty Images)

Japan’s biggest domestic sports league, Nippon Professional Baseball, started its 2020 season on Friday after a three-month delay due to the Covid-19 shutdown.

Six games were played over the weekend across the two conferences, the Central League and the Pacific League, all behind closed doors. The biggest fixtures were the Central League champions Yomiuri Giants playing the Hanshin Tigers at the Tokyo Dome and reigning Japan Series champions the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks playing the Lotte Marines at the PayPay Dome in Fukuoka.

Among the measures to enliven the games, the Fukuoka Softbank Hawks hosted a ‘dance party’ between innings with robots and cheerleaders dancing in the stadium, and fans invited to join in from home.

The league hopes Japanese authorities will allow it to admit a limited number of fans to stadiums later this season. A small number of fans turned up outside some of the stadiums over the weekend to be close to the action. A number of Hiroshima Carp fans were allowed into their home stadium to watch their team play away at Yokohama on the big screen.

Most of the matches were broadcast live on television in Japan. The league’s teams sell their media rights individually, rather than as a collective. There are a number of domestic broadcast partners, including OTT platform DAZN and regional free-to-air channels.

The 2020 NPB regular season has been shortened to 120 games from its usual 143, and the playoffs have also been shortened. The Central League has cancelled its Climax Series, that normally determines which of the top three teams in the conference competes in the Japan Series finals. The Pacific League will play a shortened, one-round Climax Series between its top two teams. The annual All-Star match has also been cancelled this year.

The regular season is set to conclude on November 7, and the Japan Series finals will take place that month. The regular season was originally scheduled to start on March 20.

The NPB has introduced a host of measures to tackle the Covid-19 risk and adapt to the shortened season.

All players were tested for Covid-19 before the season’s restart. Earlier this month, two Yomiuri Giants players tested positive and were quarantined.

During games, players are prohibited from spitting or giving each other high-fives.

The league has created an opening schedule that limits travel for the teams until late July. Special rules have been introduced to help teams through the shortened season, including ending tied games after the 10th inning and increasing roster sizes from 29 players to 31. Nikkei reports that the league is still considering further measures, including ending games after nine innings.

The NPB is the third major Asian baseball league to resume play this year, after Taiwan’s Chinese Professional Baseball League on April 11, and the Korea Baseball Organisation on May 5. The world’s biggest baseball league, America’s Major League Baseball is yet to resume and is currently embroiled in fractious talks with its players over the plan for doing so.

Japanese football’s J-League is set to return to action later this month, with second and third division matches kicking off on June 27, and the top division on July 4.