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[NOTES on a SCORECARD] Skipping Rural Games, Annual Trip to Tokyo a Mistake by Nipponham Fighters

The Nipponham Fighters will play all of their 2023 home games at the new ES CON Field Hokkaido instead of at several venues, breaking from NPB tradition.

ES CON Field Hokkaido, the Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters' new ballpark, opens in 2023. (ⒸSANKEI)

The Hokkaido Nipponham Fighters have recently unveiled their new stadium, ES CON Field Hokkaido, to the media. Built in Kitahiroshima, outside of Sapporo, the facility has an impressive appearance. It has a surface of natural grass and a retractable roof. And it sports a massive glass back wall behind the outfield fence.

The stadium will seat 35,000 fans and is estimated to have cost ¥60 billion JPY ($432.2 million USD) to construct. It is certain to be a hit with fans at the outset. 

I rode past it recently on the way into Sapporo from New Chitose Airport and was struck by the unique design.

While I was in the city to cover the NHK Trophy it was announced that the Fighters would be playing all of their home games during the coming 2023 season at ES CON Field Hokkaido. That means they will be forgoing their visits to rural cities around the prefecture, including Asahikawa, Kushiro and Obihiro. As well, they will forego their annual trip to Tokyo for a series at their former home, Tokyo Dome.

This didn't sit well with me when I learned of it. I understand the idea behind wanting to showcase the new stadium during its inaugural season. But how about the fans who don't have the money or time to travel to see the venue?

It seems like the fans are being disregarded in a pattern that could develop into a more frequent occurrence. 

No doubt one of the reasons for the idea to pass on the rural home games this season is to generate as much revenue as possible. Officials likely want to start recouping some of the significant amount that was invested in putting up the stadium.

Will Fan Support Diminish?

I'm just not sure this is a wise move by the Fighters. The team is the pride of Hokkaido. And all of its residents deserve a chance to see it play, as do those who supported the club in Tokyo for so many years. One of the great aspects of the NPB is how fans throughout the country can see games in person despite not living in a team's home city.

Time will tell if this decision is a one-off move or the beginning of something longer-term. And we'll see what the true cost will be in fan support.

Something else that struck me was the distance of the new ground from Sapporo. It is 31 kilometers from the center of the city to the stadium, or a drive of approximately 40 minutes. The train from Sapporo Station to Kitahiroshima Station takes 18 minutes. Then you have to take a bus to the facility or walk 1.7 km to the stadium.

The new site was obviously selected because the cost for land outside the city was much less than inside. But I wonder about what will happen when the novelty wears off or the team struggles on the field.

Will fans still be willing to invest the time to travel so far to watch the team play?

Stars a Big Part of Sapporo's Publicity Campaign for 2030 Olympics

Sapporo's push to host the 2030 Winter Olympics was on full display as I ventured around the city that week. The huge underground walkway that runs from Sapporo Station to the entertainment district of Susukino featured big posters of sports stars like Yuzuru Hanyu, Shoma Uno and many others.

Venues like Makomanai Arena, which hosted figure skating at the 1972 Sapporo Games, and Tsukisamu Gymnasium, where hockey was played during the Olympic tournament 50 years ago, are sorely outdated and need to be replaced.

The Sapporo Municipal Government revealed on November 8 that the expected cost to host the Olympics will be approximately ¥300 billion JPY ($2.16 billion USD), The Mainichi Shimbun reported.

A March 2022 survey conducted by the municipal government found that 52.2% of respondents were either "in favor" or "somewhat in favor" of the city's Olympic bid.

Sapporo is vying with Vancouver, British Columbia, and Salt Lake City, Utah, to host the extravaganza. All three cities have previously hosted the Winter Games. The vote to determine the host is expected to take place in September 2023.

Fanatics, Nike Finalize Deal with Giants

An interesting development was announced on Tuesday, November 22. That is when online apparel maker Fanatics and Nike signed a long-term deal for the manufacturing and distribution of uniforms and merchandise for NPB's Yomiuri Giants. The agreement made the Giants the first international sports team to adopt the dual model.

Fanatics will operate internet and retail outlets for the Giants. They will also refurbish the store at Tokyo Dome before the start of next season as part of the pact.

The deal makes Nike the official uniform supplier of the Giants. Meanwhile, Fanatics will make the team uniforms and Nike-branded jerseys for fans.

In a press release announcing the deal, Yomiuri Giants President Tsukasa Imamura said, "It is a great honor and pleasure to partner with Fanatics, the global leader in licensed sports merchandise. We can imagine the joy on our fans' faces brought by the innovative business model, which includes manufacturers, logistics, e-commerce, and retailers using cutting-edge technology."

Imamura went on to say, "Please look forward to this innovative partnership between the Yomiuri Giants, Nike and Fanatics, the first of its kind in the world for an individual club."

The agreement seems like it could be the start of something between NPB teams and Fanatics. Overseas, the company maintains exclusive licensing deals with the MLB, NFL, NHL and several universities. In my opinion, NPB teams have long been undervalued assets in terms of marketing both inside and outside of Japan.

FTX Lawsuit a Cautionary Tale for Athletes

Naomi Osaka and Shohei Ohtani have been caught up in the recent collapse of crypto exchange FTX. After serving as brand ambassadors for the company, the pair were among several high-profile athletes and celebrities sued as part of a class-action lawsuit in Florida.

The suit is seeking compensation for damages caused to investors. It claims that "American consumers collectively sustained over $11 billion" USD in losses. FTX filed for bankruptcy earlier in November.

Bloomberg News reported on November 22 that the Texas State Securities Board has expanded its investigation into FTX's operations. It now includes scrutinizing promotions by NFL superstar Tom Brady and the NBA's Stephen Curry and other celebrities.

While it is unlikely that Osaka and Ohtani will incur any significant financial impact from the suit, the matter is a cautionary tale for athletes who concentrate their energy on performing while entrusting their outside endeavors to agents or advisors. They will have to seriously consider future offers and weigh them against possible damage to their reputations in the wake of the FTX fiasco.

Nets' Watanabe Continues to Impress with 3-Point Shooting

Plaudits for the play of Brooklyn Nets forward Yuta Watanabe continue to roll in. The Kagawa Prefecture native, who missed Tuesday's game against the Philadelphia 76ers and Wednesday's game against the Toronto Raptors with a right hamstring injury, is leading the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage at 57.1. He has gained an admirer in star teammate Kevin Durant.

"He's playing great," Durant was quoted as saying after a recent win over the Memphis Grizzlies by SB Nation. "We love his energy. He's hitting big shots for us. So you always get excited for your teammates, especially guys who come in and don't necessarily have a guaranteed spot on the team but work their way into the rotation and put their imprint on the game from Day 1."

Durant indicated that the team has confidence in the 203-cm Watanabe, who played collegiately at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

"So I'm excited for him, and at this point I think we should expect that he'll go out there and play good basketball," Durant commented. "I'm not saying he's going to make every shot and shoot 70 percent from the floor for the rest of the year, but he's playing solid ball on both ends of the floor. We expect that from him now."

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Author: Jack Gallagher

The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, here, and find him on Twitter @sportsjapan.

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