Independent Leagues in Japan

» 26 May 2009 » In international baseball, sports business »

Note: There’s a newer version of this article available here.

Recently I had the opportunity to attend minor league games in Toledo and Columbus, Ohio and was amazed of the quality of the ballparks. Affiliated Minor League Baseball barely exists from a business standpoint in Japan, but a new wave of independent league baseball has been developing in Japan. Even though NPB is the mainstream for baseball in Japan, a number of independent teams have been born over the past five years and it will be interesting to see what kind of role these leagues will play in Japanese baseball and sports business.

Started as the Shikoku Island League with four teams from the Shikoku region and expanded to six teams from the 2008 season. 17 players from the league has been selected in the NPB draft. If a player is chosen from an NPB team, the player contributes their contract money and a portion of their first year salary to the previous team. Terumasa Matsuo was signed to a minor-league deal by the Boston Red Sox and played a season with the 1A Greenville Drive.

Chiba Lotte Marines manager Bobby Valentine once mentioned purchasing a team from the Island League and operate it as their minor league system.

Started with four teams as the Hokushinestu Baseball Challenge League and expanded to six teams for the 2008 season. Every team does not have a home stadium and travels around their home state to play in different stadiums, calling them all their “Home” stadiums. Four players have been selected in the NPB draft from this league and Kensuke Uchimura of the Rakuten Golden Eagles has been the first player to play in an NPB game.

Started this March by creating a buzz with the 17-year old female knuckleballer in Eri Yoshida who drew over 11,000 fans to the opening game. However recently the operating company Stella withdrew from the operation and the current four teams and an expected expansion team from 2010, Mie, agreed to operate the league with the strength of the five teams by building its own corporation.

The purpose for the development of the independent leagues roots from the 2004 Orix Blue Wave-Kintetsu Buffaloes merger. There were signs of new teams developing due to the possibility of other NPB teams disappearing, but the merger and subsequent entry of the Rakuten Golden Eagles put the idea on hold. Although new expansion teams entering the NPB did not occur, former player and manager Hiromichi Ishige stood at the forefront of the development of the then Shikoku Island League and currently is the commissioner of the Kansai Dokuritsu League.

New teams entering the NPB might be unrealistic in the near future, but creating more opportunities around Japan for not only players, but coaches, front office personnel, and umpries should benefit Japanese baseball. The independent leagues are under the philiosophy of creating local fans and opportunities for more people to be able to pursue their dream as a baseball player. As every league is expanding yearly and developing new relationships with each other (such as interleague play), there are no limits to the possibilities.

Operating the leagues is not an easy matter and will take years for teams to have their own beautiful ballparks like many of the minor league teams here in the United States, but as long as more players and coaches along with the people who want to be in sports get involved, and are able to receieve support from sponsoring companies, the development should continue. More opportunities and the expansion of baseball around the country should keep baseball one of the most popular sports in Japan for a very long time.

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  1. Ryo
    26/05/2009 at 7:43 am Permalink

    Great article Ryo. It’s really neat that you write about the stuff that I want to learn more about. Seriously, I can’t thank you enough.

    I actually wrote about an exhibition match up in my blog at Nagoya Kyujyo back in April between the Toyama Thunderbirds of the BCL League and Chunichi’s 2-gun squad. So, I guess there’s possibly working relationships between these independent leagues and NPB already? I’m not sure but I thought that my blog article might be of some interest to you. Here’s the link if you want to read it:

  2. Ryo
    26/05/2009 at 8:58 pm Permalink

    Thanks Matt, good to know that at least one person is enjoying what I write. Enjoyed reading your piece on the exhibition match. The 2-gun squad of NPB teams vs. independent league teams are happening occassionally and that should be the first step in building relationships with each other.

  3. Ryo
    26/05/2009 at 11:08 pm Permalink

    Indie ball is also filling the gaps that are being left behind by numerous corporations folding their baseball (and other sports) teams. The leagues are great for Japanese baseball, hopefully they are viable as businesses (and they seem to be as leagues are surviving and expanding).

  4. Ryo
    27/05/2009 at 8:52 am Permalink

    Heh, I have a post almost exactly like this still in draft stage, from last December when I was trying to explain different leagues in Japan. For various family-related reasons I wasn’t able to finish the series over the winter, and now your recent series of posts on indie leagues and the ikusei system and so on make me feel entirely justified for being lazy 🙂

    Though I’m still hoping to revisit and complete those posts after I actually get down to Shikoku and some other places this summer anyway.

    Actually, this made me wonder what happened to Kyohei Matsuzaka after his stint with the SIL Ehime Mandarin Pirates. It looks, though, like he is back playing for the Tokyo LBC again. Huh. (Now there’s a whole other can of worms — you want to write up the whole amateur league system, with company teams and club teams? Or was that the plan already?)