Monday, September 15, 2008

Baseball, Human Rights, and the Media as a Marketing Tool

While sumo is being inundated by big, athletic Eurasian and East European wrestlers making their bids for big bucks, baseball is seeing its biggest draws plucked away by MLB in the cash-rich, professionally managed U.S. sports market. Either way, Japanese sports are at a crossroads. Here, I take up baseball, where the trickle of Japanese talent started by Hideo Nomo’s one-man rebellion threatens to pass another milestone, from a media watch angle.
Junichi Tazawa is a 22-year old right-hander who currently pitches for the corporate amateur team fielded by Eneos. Although this ESPN report does not give him rave reviews
"His fastball is 88 to 93 [mph]," said a scout for one team who declined to be named. "He has a forkball, a curve, but the command of his fastball is so-so. His lower body is stiff."
he is considered a top prospect in Japan and would be one of the first to go in the first round of the Japanese pro baseball draft. However, ENEOS faxed the twelve professional baseball teams (NPB) with the request that they do not name Mr. Tazaki in the draft since he intends to throw his baseball cap into the U.S. major league baseball draft. This has understandably thrown the NPB, at a substantial cash disadvantage vis-à-vis the U.S. major league baseball (MLB) into a tizzy and the Japanese sports media, including the mainstream dailies, is abuzz with the story. My interest in this issue is mainly in the way it illuminates the role that mainstream dailies play as marketing tools of their non-media holdings.

All the twelve NPB teams have second squads, where the not-quite-ready-for-prime-time mingle with rehabbing veterans and malingering oldsters, but that’s it. There’s no minor league system to speak of*. So high school and college graduates who go undrafted by choice or against their will but want another chance to turn pro (or just to play baseball under a less stressful environment for a few more years) hone their skills in one of the corporate amateur teams, which give their corporate patrons cheap publicity when tournament season rolls around, as well as serve as a focal point for company solidarity for their regular employees. It is also good for community relations. The corporate amateur teams are nowhere near as popular s they used to be, and their ranks have been diminished by corporate cutbacks during the fallow, post-bubble-economy years. But there still is plenty of room there for athletes like Mr. Tazawa who bide their time before attempting that leap to the next level.

The next level, until now, had always been the NPB. True, there have been exceptions, such as Mac Suzuki, who dropped out of high school to join the U.S. minors and eventually had a brief, journeyman sort of career in the majors. But MLB, in the interests of international comity, respect the Japanese draft and will only go after undrafted amateurs, and Mac was just such a one. Until now.

Of course a Japanese team can draft Mr. Tazawa regardless, but its negotiation rights will expire in a year, so it is likely to end up having wasted its own top draft pick just to make a point for NPB. Barring unforeseen events, Mr. Tazawa will wind up in the 30-team MLB draft, if not as a top-ten pick, surely somewhere in the first two or three rounds. MLB is surely at another level, if the drop-off in the performance of Japanese superstar crossovers like the two Matsuis, Hideki and Kazuo, Tadahito Iguchi, and even the magnificent Ichiro (Suzuki) are any indication. Still, these and lesser players with the right tools have shown that Japanese player can hold their own with hungry Latin American and other more exotic imports to the majors.

Yes, the Japanese pro leagues may suffer if this opens a floodgate. But hey, the Japanese Constitution that says, “Every person shall have freedom… to choose his occupation to the extent that it does not interfere with the public welfare [and that the] [f]reedom of all persons to move to a foreign country… shall be inviolate”, right? Well, it depends on which newspaper you read.

A Mainichi reporter goes to bat for Japanese (professional) baseball. The headline itself is telling:
Tazawa’s Major League Challenge: Urgent Need for New Rules
The report quotes a top baseball executive:
Masatake Yamanaka, a managing director at Yokohama points out, “Each country should have priority rights (to get [the players]).”
The article concludes:
If “it is difficult to legally bind the United States by the agreement between Japanese professional baseball and its amateur counterparts” (Hidetoshi Kiyotake; Yomiuri Giants representative), then “there is no alternative but to hurry and establish new rules between the Japanese and American professional [leagues].”
If you’re wondering where the media’s well-established concern for human rights have gone, don’t go looking for it at Asahi. Asahi appears to be taking a detached, just-the-facts-ma’am approach to the issue, here and here.”

Look no further than the liberals’ bugbear Sankei Shinbun to find the most balanced coverage of all, where this typical article talks not unsympathetically about the difficulties that this turn of events poses for NPB, but points out that “from the point of view of the ‘freedom to choose one’s occupation’ there is no way that the NPB can stop this’”. It also cites a claim from Yomiuri Giants representative Hidetake Kiyotake that “Japan has its hands tied and MLB is free [to contact prospects and pay draftees whatever they want to]. It’s unfair.” The article concludes that “[a]lthough it is undesirable to create rules that bind payers to Japan, there is a need to coordinate with amateur baseball and put Japanese and American baseball on an equal footing.”

Yomiuri shows little if any of the heavy-handed boosterism and editorializing that permeates its usual baseball reporting. True, Takuo Takihana, the Yomiuri Giants “owner (surrogate for parent company)” is seen in this Sankei article as being pissed off at Mr. Tazawa for having the gall to tell NPB not to draft him. But Yomiuri itself has been taking it relatively calmly, here, here (a Tazawa interview transcript!), and here.

The media outlets’ respective relationships with NPB shed some light on these different reporting angles that they have adopted with regard to Tazaki’s prospective defection to America.

There’s a reason why Yomiuri insists on an equal footing with MLB but little else. This has nothing to do with human rights and much to do with the fortunes of the corporate jewels, the Yomiuri Giants. The Giants are the one true national institution in Japanese professional baseball. Every baseball fan in Japan is either pro- or anti-Giants fan, and even a greater proportion of baseball players would love nothing more than to play for the Giants. If the Giants had their druthers, the draft would be abolished, leaving it to pick off the cream of the crop, with all the cash, public acclaim, and air time (TV loves the Giants) at its disposal to lure top prospects and free agents to its clubhouse or force desirable trades on its competitors. It also wants to be on the good side of MLB; it has cornered the market on MLB exhibition games in Japan, many of which are played against… you guessed it, the Yomiuri Giants.

Mainichi’s stance appears to have a business motive as well. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I remember the Seibu Group playing a crucial role in the 1070s Mainichi bailout, and that this led to a special relationship with the baseball team Lions, when the Seibu Group later purchased it from its previous, ailing corporate owner. The Lions have seen many fat years on the baseball diamond, but unfortunately belongs to the poorer Pacific League.

Asahi can play it cool because it doesn’t have a baseball team to push. Sankei doesn’t have a stake in pro baseball either. Both these dailies are part of media groups that have an interest in broadcasting Japanese baseball games. But with the Yomiuri group’s Nippon TV claiming dibs on the cash cow Giants, there’s much less incentive for these two dailies to report it as anything other than just another baseball story.

All but lost in all this, except with Sankei, is the human rights angle. I stand ready to be corrected.


Jan Moren said...

The EU parliament recently declared illegal rules banning on more than a maximum number of foreign players in the national football leagues, citing the principle of free movement of labour within the union. Not surprisingly, sports entities all over Europe went ballistic.

It brings up a touchy subject: sports leagues and athletes are nominally labouring under the same laws as everybody else, but in practice it's gotten a mighty big free pass for many years. Remember the head butt by Zidane in the world cup? In what other situation civilian could a clear case of assault happen in front of thirty thousand witnesses, played on tv around the world, and yet not lead to a police investigation? When it is even illegal for a prosecutor not to act in such clear cases?

When a sports entity asks civilian authorities to carve out a special exemption for them, all they do is put a spotlight to this discrepancy and risk replacing the ambiguity with some very clear, unfavourable rulings, like happened in EU.

Jun Okumura said...

I don’t quite see the linkage between the two the way you do, Janne. There is some justification to what at first glance appears to be an arbitrary de facto exemption from criminal prosecution for violence in spectator sports. I gave it a fuller treatment as a separate post. As for the EU’s denial of the FIFA proposal to set a six-nationals-to-a-side minimum for club soccer teams in EU member countries, it is on the surface a conflict between a sound business practice and a public policy imperative. More interesting to me, it highlights the tension between the cosmopolitan spirit that drives the EU and the communitarian sentiments that fuel spectator sports. From a historical perspective, it is but one chapter in a greater struggle over allegiance that stretches back to the earliest empires.