My late pal Wayne Graczyk used to talk about the time he worked on the U.S. TV feed for the 1994 Japan Series alongside Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek when the major leagues were on strike, but otherwise Asian baseball on American TV has been a hit-and-miss affair.
On Thursday, Yonhap News reported that ESPN’s talks with the Korea Baseball Organization to air pro games from South Korea fell through. The report said the U.S. giant wanted the content for free, so that would seem like a non-starter.
South Korea suffered more severe early infections of COVID-19 than the United States. Despite Donald Trump’s boasts to the contrary, South Korea has done a vastly better job of controlling the coronavirus, and KBO is set to open its season, behind closed doors, on May 5.
Japan follows Trump’s lead
While Japan took some steps in February to stem the spread of infection by asking schools to close and event promoters not to attract crowds, the national government echoed Trump’s line that all was under control so that the Tokyo Olympics could go on as scheduled. Indeed, the biggest concern seems to have been suppressing the number of positive test results so as not to make people think Japan had a problem.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who seems to enjoy being in Trump’s orbit and who owes allegiance to the monied right-wing elites who fund his agenda, has said in essence, taking harsh measures to control the coronavirus is against the law and we lawmakers are helpless to change the law.
So it is that while Japan could have been in the same place as South Korea, with solid testing regimes and aggressive measures in place, it chose to test as few people as possible in order to keep published infection totals low. And while baseball might start here in June, it might not.
When it does, it will be very interesting if U.S. networks have any interest in broadcasting Japanese games. The Central League, where all teams hold exclusive broadcasting rights to their home games, is pretty much a no-go, but the Pacific League, whose clubs can market their rights jointly through Pacific League marketing, might have some attractive options available if baseball is being played here but not in the U.S.
Of course, there is always the chance that Japan, like ESPN, will boot its opportunity.
NPB and the fear of failure
In 2007, if I recall correctly, Bobby Valentine tried to introduce NPB to ESPN for the purpose of airing the Japan Series. The Series rights belong to NPB not to the individual clubs, although they have the right to select broadcasters for their home games in the postseason.
At the time, Valentine was the de facto general manager of the Lotte Marines, and team representative Ryuzo Setoyama — until he engineered Valentine’s ouster in a 2009 coup d’etat — sometimes cooperated with the skipper to pursue reforms. Setoyama broached the idea of having NPB sell the Japan Series broadcasting rights to ESPN, but according to Valentine, the other teams vetoed it.
“They said they were afraid that some kind of mistake might happen that would embarrass them,” Valentine told me at the time.
Of course, weird stuff has happened in the Series. Hall of Fame manager Toshiharu Ueda pulled his team off the field in 1978 to protest a home run he thought was foul. In 2004, accident-prone umpire Atsushi Kittaka’s poor execution of an out call at home plate caused Game 1 of the Japan Series to be delayed for 49 minutes.
And since Japanese baseball is about not losing by making mistakes, there may be some here who would consider vetoing a deal that could expose NPB to ridicule a victory.