Attendance Up in Japan’s NPB in 2016

Overall attendance in Japan’s NPB was up a substantial 3.1% in 2016, and even better, the attendance growth was driven almost entirely by the smaller revenue clubs.  Both leagues set new single-season attendance records, as did six of the twelve teams.

While neither of the most poorly attended teams in each league, the Chiba Lotte Marines and the Yakult Swallows, set new attendance records, each had the largest percentage increase of any team in their respective leagues.  The only teams to have attendance declines compared to 2015 were the Yomiuri Giants and the SoftBank Hawks, two of NPB’s three rich teams, and even then the declines were modest.

Here are the 2016 attendance figures in millions:

Central League

Yomiuri Giants                3.004

Hanshin Tigers                2.911

Hiroshima Carp               2.157  New Franchise Record

Chunichi Dragons           2.058

Yokohama BayStars        1.939  New Franchise Record

Yakult Swallows               1.779

Pacific League

SoftBank Hawks              2.493

Nippon Ham Fighters    2.079  New Franchise Record

Orix Buffaloes                  1.794   New Franchise Record

Rakuten Golden Eagles  1.621   New Franchise Record

Seibu Lions                       1.618   New Franchise Record

Chiba Lotte Marines       1.527

It is quite possible that NPB will have seven teams drawing more than 2 million fans next season, creating a new “middle class” of teams that, except for the Chunichi Dragons, did not exist even 10 or 15 years ago.

The biggest driver of the attendance increase, at least in the long term, is the movement of teams out of the Greater Toyko and Osaka metropolitan areas into other smaller, but still large, metropolitan areas, such as Fukuoka (1988), Sapporo (2002) and Sendai (2005).  That process is more or less complete in terms of franchise moves, because Japan doesn’t have any other uninhabited metro areas large enough to support a major league NPB team.  However, the process of teams building up local fan bases supporting the local teams is still ongoing, and the thinning out of teams in Greater Tokyo and Greater Osaka, which are totally dominated by the Yomiuri Giants and the Hanshin Tigers respectively, has allowed the five remaining second banana teams in these massive metro areas to develop larger fan bases of their own.

Also, the Golden Eagles are currently playing in a stadium in Sendai that seats only about 23,500 fans, by far the smallest in NPB.  Presumably, the team will eventually move into a larger stadium and draw many more fans than it can now.

If the attendance growth of the last couple of seasons continues for several more years, with the bottom dwellers enjoying the largest attendance increases, it will make NPB much more competitive than it has ever been.

More revenue and more competition mean a better product on the field and will hopefully mean loosening of the caps on roster spaces for foreign players.  The recent attendance gains by NPB have already started a trend of most NPB teams signing far more foreign players than the four roster spaces per team would allow.   Teams are stashing foreign players on their minor league rosters so that the moment one or more of the four foreigners on the major league squad gets hurt or loses effectiveness, they can quickly fill that roster space with a new foreign player.

Aside from creating more high paying NPB jobs for players from the Americas, Australia, South Korea and Taiwan, a higher quality of play in NPB would also mean more former NPB players coming over to MLB as the gap in play between NPB and MLB narrows.  These players could potentially provide the additional talent needed for another round of MLB expansion.

However, MLB expansion generally has far more to do with the amount of expansion fees to be paid by the new owners relative to further splitting of short-term television revenues and giving up potential vacant metro areas to which existing MLB teams can threaten to move if local public entities refuse to pony up money for new stadia, than it does to the amount of major league talent available to fill the new expansion teams.

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