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Note: There’s a newer version of this article available here.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