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Sunday, 11 October 2009

Thoughts on Yomiuri and Mikitani

A former Vissel fan muses on what might be behind Rakuten's apparent lack of focus on its sports teams.

It has always struck me that there was a a potential conflict of interest between the Yomiuri media group and the group's ownership of Kawasaki/Tokyo Verdy football club.  I now doubt the sincerity of Mikitani's commitment to make Vissel successful.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the Yomiuri media group and the Yomiuri Giants baseball club.  The Yomiuri media group works as a medium of propagandistic hype for the Giants, and the success of the Giants increases sales of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Sports Houchi and other companies in the Yomiuri media group.

So long as football was a minor sport, Yomiuri was happy to sponsor a football team, as it did in the amateur days and as it sponsors teams in many other sports.  However, once pro football started to pose a major challenge to Nippon Pro Baseball, the Yomiuri group was certain to be in a position where it wanted football to lose to baseball.  Any declining popularity of pro baseball would have an immediate negative effect on the sales of the Yomiuri Shimbun, the Sports Houchi, etc.

It is, therefore, easily understandable that the Yomiuri group has been unwilling to invest large sums in Tokyo Verdy to try and make it hugely successful.  Such success would undermine the basis for Yomiuri's dominant position in the Japanese newspaper world.  I spent four years in Nagoya from 1973-77.  Even at that time the rivalry between the Yomiuri Shimbun group and the Chuunichi Shimbun group, which owns the Chuunichi Dragons pro baseball club, was intense.  It was known that a successful Giants team boosted sales of the Yomiuri and Houchi in the Chuubu area, while, when the Dragons were successful, the sales of the Yomiuri group declined and those of the Chuunichi group blossomed.

It is a cutthroat world out there in the baseball Central League.  And Japanese pro baseball is virtually run by the Yomiuri Giants.

What has that got to do with Mikitani?  Well, Mikitani, as the founder and owner of Rakuten, is widely known as one of the wealthiest of the nouveau riche in Japan.  He was born in Kobe and he started to sponsor the Vissel Kobe pro football club.  As soon as this happened, the NPB started to bring pressure on Mikitani to save the twelve-club system of the NPB (the Kintetsu Buffaloes were in the process of going bust) and you can be sure that enormous rewards and threats were made to him by the baseball establishment in general and the Yomiuri Group in particular to invest in the proposed new Touhoku club.  After prolonged pressure he agreed to do so.

This, of course, has disturbed Mikitani's concentration on Vissel and the J-League, which was what the NPB and Yomiuri intended.

Orix were also involved in bailing out Kintetsu and in the compromise that followed, the Buffaloes were merged with the Orix BlueWave.  Orix were allowed to  protect (I think) eighteen of the former Buffaloes players. [Kintetsu and Orix were allowed to protect a total of 28 players from the two clubs.] The best having been creamed off, the reserves then formed the nucleus of the new Touhoku team, to be called the Golden Eagles, to be based in Sendai.  The numbers for the Touhoku team were then supplemented by a draft of pro players by the Eagles from the other eleven clubs.  Again, each club could protect (I think) eighteen players, and the Eagles could pick up what scraps they could. [For details about the 'Allocation Draft' in Japanese, see this Wikipedia article.]

Naturally, the Eagles were very weak.  Their first manager was a man called Tao.  After the first year, he was sacked and a crusty old genius, Nomura, was appointed.  Here are the Eagles' yearly records in the six-team Pacific League:
2005:  136g:  w38, l97, d1; 6th (Tao)
2006:  136         47      85     4; 6th (Nomura)
2007:  144        67   75     2; 4th (  "       )
2008:  144        65   76     3; 5th (  "       )
2009:  143        77   65     1; 2nd (  "       )

We are right now (the Eagles' last game of the regular season is today) at the very important point when the clubs are about to begin preparing for the play-offs.
You can see that Nomura has been almost miraculously successful.  Taking a team of has-beens and discards, supplemented by the yearly draft intake, transfers, etc., he has turned them into a team that has finished 2nd and is in a position where it is possible to win the Pacific League play-offs and participate in the Japan Series.

At this very point, it has become clear that Nomura will be sacked at the end of this season.  Last week's edition of the photo scandal magazine Friday reported that owner Mikitani had had a 4-hour discussion with Hoshino Senior Director of the Hanshin Tigers.  It is widely speculated that Mikitani asked Hoshino to be the next manager and Hoshino turned him down.  Actually, nobody knows what they talked about, but it's a fact that they had a four-hour discussion.  The Eagles' CEO has said that they did not discuss baseball, which has been met by the equivalent of raucous laughter in the Japanese sports press.  Nomura has responded by saying that while he loves the Eagles team, he hates the Rakuten club.  Bridges have been burned.

Now:  what is going on here?  What is Mikitani's agenda?  Why is he replacing Nomura after this successful year?  Especially, why has he allowed the speculation to become public at this important time immediately before the play-offs?

When you think of Vissel's managerial cock-ups, it makes you doubt whether Adachi was solely responsible for what has happened, and casts doubt on Mikitani's ability to run pro sports clubs, and even on his integrity.

Is it possible that Nomura is being sacked because he insists on continuing to make the Eagles more successful?  If so, could it be that Matsuda was sacked at Vissel because he was determined to continue making them more successful?  Doubts abound.  At best, Mikitani looks out of his depth in the goldfish-bowl world of pro baseball.

Yomiuri lacks commitment to make Verdy successful.  It is doing the right thing by getting out of pro football.  It's time Mikitani sorted himself out and decides what he wants to do.  I'm sure the Eagles fans don't want a team that is going to be kept permanently in the shadow of the Giants.  If Mikitani can't afford to commit himself to making the Eagles and Vissel both highly successful, he should make a choice and commit himself to one or the other.  We Vissel fans don't want an owner who just wants to keep the club ticking over so he can get kudos for his community spirit.  Sort yourself, and get your finger out, Mikitani!

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