Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Tired of Last Place, and Shaking Things Up ; Team in Japan Will Try Anything to Lure Fans; a Deal for Men in Dresses

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Tired of Last Place, and Shaking Things Up ; Team in Japan Will Try Anything to Lure Fans; a Deal for Men in Dresses

Article excerpt

The new owners of the BayStars have tried promotions, like discounts for men who wear dresses to games, to lure fans to their home games in Yokohama.

It is fair to say that offering discounted tickets to men who arrive at the ballpark dressed in drag is an unconventional approach to filling seats. The same can be said of teams that offer fans a refund if they are unhappy with the game, even when the home team wins.

The promotions, though, are two of the many ways the hometown BayStars have tried to revive one of Japanese baseball's perennial cellar dwellers. The ideas were the brainchild of the new team executives installed by DeNA, the mobile phone game company that bought a majority stake in the club last winter for Yen 9.5 billion, or about $120 million.

The purchase raised eyebrows, not only because of its low price, which was a third of what the least expensive major league team in the United States is worth. DeNA is also a young, high-technology company breaking into the conservative Central League, which is dominated by the Yomiuri Giants, Hanshin Tigers and Chunichi Dragons, teams with deep pockets, grand traditions and a history of beating the BayStars.

DeNA hopes to shake up the old guard by injecting ideas and money into the BayStars, who have finished in last place in the six-team league in 8 of the past 10 seasons. The team has hired an upbeat manager and an innovative general manager and promoted baseball's rich tradition in and around Yokohama. It also wants to do something that is unique in Japan, where owners treat their teams as promotional vehicles, not moneymakers. DeNA wants to turn a profit within three years.

"I don't know if our changes are drastic or not, but DeNA is a new company that appeals to young people," said Jun Ikeda, the team's 36-year-old president, who wore chinos and sneakers and carried a backpack with a laptop inside during an interview. "We thought we could do something in the baseball world. It could improve our brand."

DeNA is also using baseball as a way to reach new customers for its mobile games. Its founder was educated at Harvard, and the company is far more international than many owners of other baseball teams. Ikeda said he would travel to the United States to meet with several major league clubs to learn more about how they ran their teams.

The BayStars are not the only Japanese team to seek inspiration overseas to jump-start their clubs. Bobby Valentine helped transform the Chiba Lotte Marines by importing American practices, like renovating the stadium and having the players interact more with the fans. The Nippon Ham Fighters hired American designers to redo their uniforms, and the Softbank Hawks and other teams stream their games on the Internet.

Making money has proved elusive, though. Most teams, including the BayStars, lease their stadiums, often at disadvantageous rates, and their share of the concessions is smaller than what American major-league teams receive. …

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