Attendance Up in 2013 in Japan’s NPB
The final attendance figures for the 2013 Nippon Professional Baseball (“NPB”) are in, and with a livelier baseball back in use after two seasons of steeply depressed offense when a different ball was experimented with, attendance was up more than 3% compared to 2012. No surprise there — fans like offense, particularly the casual fans who drive rises and falls in attendance.
Also, no surprise were the final attendance figures for each of NPB’s 12 major league teams. The traditionally top drawing teams remained so, and the perennial poor clubs didn’t catch up. Here are the figures by team in millions (along with their average annual attendance from 2010 through 2012 for comparison purposes:
Yomiuri Giants — 3.01 (2.86)
Hanshin Tigers — 2.77 (2.88)
Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — 2.41 (2.30)
Chunichi Dragons — 2.00 (2.14)
Nippon Ham Fighters — 1.86 (1.93)
Seibu Lions — 1.60 (1.57)
Hiroshima Carp — 1.57 (1.59)
Orix Buffaloes — 1.44 (1.39)
Yakult Swallows — 1.43 (1.33)
Yokohama Bay Stars — 1.43 (1.16)
Rakuten Golden Eagles — 1.28 (1.16)
Chiba Lotte Marines — 1.26 (1.37)
It’s worth noting that pennant races seem to have relatively little effect on the league’s attendance structure (three teams, the Giants, Tigers and Hawks, are clearly profitable, averaging more than 30,000 fans for each of 72 home games; two teams, the Dragons and the Ham Fighters, are marginally profitable or at least break even with average attendance at or over 25,000 per game; and seven teams, the Lions, Buffaloes, Carp, Swallows, Bay Stars, Golden Eagles and Marines, likely requiring significant subsidies from their parent corporations, based on average attendance well below 25,000 per game).
The Yomiuri Giants finished the regular season with a commanding lead over all the other teams in the Central League, and their attendance was up a bit, and the Chunichi Dragons failed to make the post-season (six of the 12 NPB teams qualify for the post-season), and their attendance was down a bit. However, the Rakuten Golden Eagles finished first in the Pacific League for the first time in their nine year history, but drew only 1.28 million fans.
The imbalance in NPB has much to do with the league’s history. The oldest team, the Yomiuri Giants, is the favorite team of a reported 50% of all NPB fans. The Hanshin Tigers, who play in the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto metropolitan area, enjoy the support of about 20% of all NPB fans and are second oldest team.
Further, for much of NPB’s history, almost all of its teams played in greater Tokyo or greater Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto. At one time, ten of the 12 NPB teams played in these two metro areas (six in Tokyo and four in O-K-K), markets dominated by the Giants and Tigers. Even now, with some teams having moved to other major cities, seven of the 12 teams remain in greater Tokyo or O-K-K. The Giants draw nearly twice as many fans as any of the other four teams in the Tokyo area, and the Tigers typically draw more than twice as many fans as the Orix Buffaloes.
Teams have begun to spread out into other cities in the last couple of decades, and this has indeed improved overall league attendance. The Chunichi Dragons, NPB’s third oldest team, have always played in Nagoya and have their own fan base. The Hawks moved from O-K-K to Fukuoka in 1988, becoming the only team on the island of Kyushu, and have since become the third highest drawing team in Japan.
The Nippon Ham Fighters, who long shared the same stadium as the Yomiuri Giants, moved to Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido in 2004, and their attendance improved dramatically. For example, in 2005 the Ham Fighters drew 1,000,000 fans for the first time since 1993, and the team has averaged a little better than 1.9 million a year over the last four seasons.
After the 2004 season, two O-K-K based teams, the Orix Blue Wave and the Kintetsu Buffaloes merged to become the current Orix Buffaloes, leaving O-K-K with only two teams. NPB threatened to contract to 11 teams with the merger, and a strike by NPB players forced ownership to establish the expansion Rakuten Golden Eagles in Sendei in Northern Honshu.
The Golden Eagles haven’t drawn well in Sendei to date, largely due to the fact that they haven’t been very good. If they make it to the Japan Series this year, one would expect them to draw substantially better in 2014, although the possible loss of Masahiro Tanaka to MLB would certainly be expected to dampen enthusiasm for the Golden Eagles’ chances next year, although it would also put a cool $50+ million in Rakuten’s pocket as a posting fee.
NPB attendance is also affected by corporate ownership. All of NPB’s teams are owned by large corporations, and serve as a form of advertizing for the corporate parents. NPB has not been as aggressive as MLB at maximizing attendance and revenue streams other than ticket sales because the teams are largely subsidized by their corporate owners and there isn’t the same pressure to generate increased revenues solely from the playing of professional baseball games.
One major result of NPB’s attendance structure, at least as far as MLB fans are concerned, is that its the poor teams that have used the posting systems for sending players to the U.S. far more often the rich clubs. For example, neither the Yomiuri Giants nor the Softbank Hawks has yet posted a player. Also, while NPB players can become true free agents after nine seasons, the three wealthiest clubs can often pay these free agents more than they can get from an initial contract to play in MLB.
One piece of good news is that NPB’s three top pitching prospects for MLB, the Golden Eagles’ Masahiro Tanaka, the Carps’ Kenta Maeda and the Buffaloes’ Chihiro Kaneko all currently play for low-attendance clubs, so there’s a good chance we’ll get to see them pitch in the U.S. one day.