Monday, October 29, 2018

Yokohama B-Corsairs 73 at Sun Rockers Shibuya 77 (B.League) - October 28, 2018


Being out of Japan, I don't follow Japanese sports much, so I missed the news that the bj League had merged with the JBL (which had become the NBL during my absence) and NBDL to form the B.League. They had an opportunity to go with JNBA and blew it, but what do you expect when one of the contributors was the bj League.

Anyway, the new circuit has three divisions totaling 46 teams, which makes for a plethora of road trip possibilities. But why bother spending money on train fare when there is a game within walking distance? One of the teams is the Sun Rockers Shibuya, who play their home games at Aoyama Gakuin Memorial Hall, just a short stroll from where I am staying.



When I lived here, I walked by this non-descript building dozens of times, without ever realizing that it could be a sports venue. Today, it was decorated in yellow banners to signify that a Sun Rockers game was taking place. The cheapest ticket was a surprising 2,900 yen ($26) but such is life in Japan, where these minor sports are often overpriced.



Inside, the yellow theme is even more pronounced. The team store is known as the Yellow Shop, and  they shout "Let's Yellow Up the Arena!" to get fans to stand up for tip-off.



The cheap seats are limited to those in the end zone and corners. I arrived about 30 minutes before scheduled tip and the seats in the corner closer to the court were mostly full, so I was relegated to the end zone (left of the photo below). The concession stands, team store, and various other sponsor tables are on the first floor beneath here, so you are a little bit farther away than need be.



Still, the view isn't terrible, equivalent to a lower level seat in an NBA arena.



There is a walkway above the seating area that allows you to move around and take pictures from different angles. You can even stand here during the game, and probably even sneak into the reserved seats in the upper level at halftime. The gameday experience is similar to that in America with over-the-top intros done in darkness, seat upgrades, cheerleaders, and t-shirt tosses. Fans really get into it and have a lot of fun.



As I've mentioned several times, Japanese sports venues are purely functional, and often the building has a primary purpose other than hosting games. This is a hall that belongs to Aoyama Gakuin, a university whose campus is just behind it. It is probably used for graduation and other ceremonies, with the basketball team a secondary tenant. Still, it is one of the better spots I have seen hoops here and well worth visiting for any fan in Tokyo during the season.



The Game

The visitors were the Yokohama B-Corsairs and the two clubs had played the night before with Yokohama winning. The Sun Rockers boasted two former Lakers: Robert Sacre (shooting a free throw below) and Ryan Kelly (#34) but were still only 1-8, two games behind their opponents.



Yokohama dominated the first half behind some good shooting and tough defense, heading to the break up 51-36. But as is often the case in basketball, the losing team mounts a comeback, and that is what happened here as Yokohama could only manage 6 points in the third quarter as their shooting went ice cold. Shibuya wasn't much better with just 16 points, but that got them within five as the final frame began. A 10-0 run by the home team early on gave them a lead and Yokohama never got closer than a point after that. They were forced to foul and Sacre made several free throws to clinch the game, with the final 77-73.



Sacre led all scorers with 26 points including 13 in the fourth quarter while Kelly added 18, so the two combined for 44 out of Shibuya's 77 points. Yokohama had a more balanced attack but shooting 9 for 31 in the second half doomed them. The game took only 1:40, even with 41 fouls. The lack of TV timeouts really helps speed things along.

I was impressed by the overall quality of play. With the merged league, all of the talent is in the same place and it was noticeably superior to the old bj League games I watched. It was fast paced and there were some excellent plays from both sides. The foreign players dominate the stat sheet, but the Japanese guys are fun to watch and are creative offensively. I was surprised to find out that these teams are two of the worst in the league and would like to see two of the best next time.

Notes

It was a special Halloween game and the Sun Rocker Girls were dressed in costume before the game, and walked through the stands greeting fans.



Next Up

I'll be heading to Funabashi next weekend to see the Sun Rockers on the road as they visit the Chiba Jets. Check back next week for a recap.

Best,

Sean

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Australia 20 vs New Zealand 37 (Bledisloe Cup) - October 27, 2018


The Bledisloe Cup is an annual rugby competition between Australia and New Zealand. Usually there are two or three matches played in those countries, but every once in a while, one will be held at a neutral site. In 2008 and 2010, a fourth match was held in Hong Kong, while Tokyo hosted one in 2009. The idea seemed to lose momentum after that though, until this year, when Yokohama was selected to host the third match. With the Rugby World Cup coming to Japan next year, this would be a good opportunity to see how the country handles the influx of foreign sports travelers.

The match was played at Nissan Stadium, where next year's final will also be held. This was also the venue for the 2002 World Cup final between Brazil and Germany, a game that I worked at. I also saw a J.League match here in 2009, so it was nice to return there after so long to see the stadium from a different perspective.



Rather than take the crowded train all the way, I walked about 2 kilometres from Kikuna Station, but there is no spot along the way where I could get a good exterior shot of the entire stadium. I arrived on the east side and walked around through the staff area to get to the main gate on the west side. The box office, an unassuming small, round booth, is located at the bottom of the staircase shown above. I did not have a ticket, but fully expected to find a Kiwi or Aussie with an extra, and was not disappointed. Prices were exorbitant, with four categories of seat depending purely on the location in relation to the pitch. In other words, the seat in the first row would cost the same as the seat in the last row, even in the upper deck. Simple, but silly. The most expensive category was on the west side sideline at 30,000 yen ($270), while the east side sideline was 20,000 yen ($180). The west side was shaded while the east side was in the sun for most of the match, so you paid $90 to avoid a sunburn. The other two categories were in the corner for 15,000 yen and the end seats at 7,000 yen. An unreasonable disparity and a large reason why attendance was only 46,000 in a venue that holds over 72,000.



On game day, prices went up by 1,000 yen so I was looking to pay no more than 8,000 yen to get in, and found an Aussie bloke with a ticket in the most expensive area who was willing to sell it to me for the minimum. I was very happy with the result as it was right at midfield on the west side, as you can see below. Note the word Stadium in the lower seats; I did not see if there was any word on the seats below me.



The upper deck is on the 7th floor of the building, and you have to take the exterior staircases that you see in the photo below. The lower deck is on the 4th floor if you are interested.



While walking up, I turned around to see the security lineup at the main gate. Bags are checked and you are wanded, but it is all for show and the line moved quite quickly. This may change next year.



Inside the concourses are barren, with only a few food stands, and none on the same floor as the upper deck. Instead, you must walk down one flight to where the concession stand is. It was poorly organized, with one line for beer purchases and the other for food. But the sign that explained this was only in Japanese, so the foreigners all lined up in the food line, which moved very slowly with only one cash register.



The food on sale was quite good though, and very reasonably priced. A stick of fried chicken was only 400 yen, while a sausage covered with rice cake was 350 yen. Interestingly, these prices were reversed at a different concession stand (photo below). Beer was limited to one variety but at 600 yen per can, was a good deal. There were also beer girls coming around during the action selling the same cans for the same price.



The interior of the stadium is a rounded rectangle, with two levels of seating all around. The pitch is surrounded by a running track, making everything a little bit farther away than it should be for rugby or soccer, but Japan is all about multi-use stadiums, so it is no surprise.



There are small scoreboards above each end zone that show replays and live action. It is difficult to move around and take pictures at different angles because tickets are checked at every entry gate. Entry gate numbers are formed by for the direction of the stadium (East, West etc.), then the deck (1 for lower deck, 2 for upper) and then the actual gate. So there are four "11" gates and it is important to recognize the side that you are sitting on.



I was happy with my seat at west 24, row 20, which was right behind the main camera bank. Before the players emerged, a group of taiko drummers performed. You can see the Bledisloe Cup in the photo below to the right of the All Blacks as they run on the field.



After the national anthems were sung, the All Blacks performed their haka, which is not a Maori war dance as many think, but a posture dance that celebrates many things, such as great achievements or important occasions. Some Maori consider it to be cultural appropriation but it has become a signature for New Zealand rugby.



With the festivities complete, it was time to get down to action. This was a dead rubber in that New Zealand had won the first two matches to retain the cup for the 16th straight year, another possible reason that attendance was not very strong. Australia was playing for pride, but they were awful, committing 10 penalties and 15 turnovers, including a bad pass that was intercepted and run back for the All Blacks final try, as New Zealand won easily 37-20. Rugby has a lot of infractions and the game saw few periods of continuous play, but when they did happen it was a lot of fun to watch.



New Zealand is the clear favourite to win next year's tournament and they showed it on this day. Will Japan be a capable host is the more pressing question. Certainly more concession stands and English signage will help, plus a more relaxed attitude among certain staff. One of the good things about rugby is that matches are short and fans rarely leave their seats during the action, so attention should be paid to the pre-game experience. Allowing fans free access to all areas for pictures and exploration is important. Most fans are not interested in finding unoccupied seats in better locations and will return to their own seat as match time approaches, so why not let them close to the pitch up to 30 minutes before the match begins? Another concern is ensuring that fans are not stuck in concession lines for 15 or 20 minutes due to limited staff behind the counter. Larger concession stands with organized queues will be necessary to handle the increased crowds at all venues. I don't know if I will be attending any of the games next year, but I hope that the organizers are able to make improvements in the fan experience so that visitors will have a positive impression of Japan when they leave.

Best,

Sean

Saturday, October 27, 2018

JT Thunders 2 at Suntory Sunbirds 3 (V.League) - October 26, 2018


When it comes to sports in Japan, baseball, soccer, and sumo get the lion's share of the overseas press. But there are several other leagues around that offer sports travellers an opportunity to see something that few foreigners even know about. Each of these leagues follows the same naming pattern: first letter of sport followed by .League. So we have the B.League for basketball, T.League for table tennis, and V.League for volleyball.



Both the T.League and V.League began their seasons this week, and I chose to see the latter's opening match on Friday evening as it was being held at the Ota City General Gymnasium, a fancy new building (by Japanese standards) that opened in 2013. It is located about 6 minutes from Umeyashiki station on the Keikyu line, about 45 minutes from Roppongi. It has a unique design, but as it is on a street corner, it is tough to get a good external shot at night.



There are 10 teams in the men's top division (with 3 divisions overall) including FC Tokyo, but the season's opening match featured two clubs from western Japan playing at a neutral site. The Suntory Sunbirds, based out of Osaka, were the home team while Hiroshima's JT Thunders were the visitors. JT is Japan Tobacco, while Suntory is one of the largest alcohol producers in the country, so the V really stood for Vice on this night.



The front of the gym was plastered with Sunbirds banners letting us know that they were the home team. I arrived just as the match was getting underway, and picked up a general admission seat for 2,500 yen. I was warned that there were few seats left, but that did not bother me as I planned to stand for most of the match. As is usual in Japan, there is no security, just several yellow-clad staff to guide you to the single point of entry.



Upon entering I was handed a red bib featuring Suntory Sunbirds. This was a lame attempt to get neutral fans to cheer for the "home" team, not that they needed it. As both clubs are sponsored by corporations, they each had their own cheering sections of company employees. Yes, if you work for one of these firms, part of your job is to cheer for the teams they own. The cheering sections took up more than half the gym, which is why the general admission seats were so few. So for every point, one half of the gym was cheering while the other half was silent. The JT supporters wore green, and it did make for an interesting photo.



The other half of the gym was 4 rows of general admission with the rest of the seats for media and special guests. Capacity is just over 4,000 with attendance announced at exactly 3,000, with many of the empty seats covered by a giant Sunbirds banner. It is tough to tell in the photo below, but their mascot is similar to that of the Louisville Cardinals.



I ended up standing at one end of the court and watched the first two sets, which were split. I then moved around during the third set (won by JT) and finally took a seat at the back corner for the fourth set (Suntory winning to force a 15-point fifth frame). The final set was quick, with Suntory winning 15-12 to take the match, proving once and for all that drinking is better than smoking. There were 207 points contested on the evening, with Suntory winning that battle 104-103. The match took only 2:18, precisely 1.5 points per minute.



There were two athletes worth noting, both foreigners: Dmitri Muserskiy of Suntory, a Russian who stands 7'2" and has several gold medals as part of their national team; and Thomas Edgar, a 6'11 Australian. Obviously these two dominated the match, towering over their Japanese teammates on the court and on the stat sheet. They both delivered several powerful spikes; whenever Muserskiy did so, a chant played repeatedly "Nice Spike Nice Spike Nice Spike". The PA announcer also added some commentary after each point, when combined with the fans cheering, it was quite a noisy event.



Volleyball is my least favourite sport and that did not change tonight. This was a very competitive match, but there were few rallies, and both teams relied on their import player too often. Volleyball is the opposite of tennis in that you shouldn't expect to win your service points as the other team has a chance to set up for the spike, so if a team can grab a few consecutive points on the serve, they have a big advantage. It is those small streaks that make the difference and so if a team does so early in the set, the rest of the set is spent watching the other team trying to catch up. It is not compelling viewing. So that will be it for me and the V.League.

Notes

The gym is the home venue of one of Tokyo's B.League club, the Earth Friends Tokyo Z. Yes, Japanese team names are weird.

Next Up

I'm heading to the third match of the Bledisloe Cup today and then a B.League game tomorrow featuring another Sun team, the Sun Rockers of Shibuya. As always, check back for recaps.

Best,

Sean

Monday, October 22, 2018

Omiya Ardija 1 at Yokohama FC 1 (J.League Division 2) - October 21, 2018


I'm in Japan for a couple of weeks and hoping to catch a few sporting events while I'm here. The baseball season is almost over, and when Seibu lost their Climax Series to Softbank in 6 games, my chance to see a playoff game disappeared as well (I had tickets to Game 7). Fortunately, there are several other leagues in full swing, including the J.League. I am more interested in visiting new venues, and as I have seen the stadiums in Tokyo, I had to look farther afield. Yokohama has teams in all 3 divisions of the J.League, with two of them playing out of the NHK Spring Mitsuzawa Stadium. The stadium naming rights are owned by Nippon Hatsujo Kabushiki-gaisha, a spring maker not related to the broadcaster NHK.



The schedule favoured a Sunday trip to see J2 team Yokohama FC, who boast Kazu Miura, still playing professionally at the age of 51. With kickoff scheduled for 2 pm, I left my apartment in Tokyo at 12:40, and arrived exactly one hour later via a subway, commuter train, and bus. Unlike New York, trains here run on time every day of the week, and you can plan a trip down to the second, so there is no time wasted waiting for a train that might not show up at all.



Upon arriving, I noticed that there were few fans outside the venue. That's because everyone was already inside. The vast majority of seats here are general admission, and if you want a good seat, you need to get there early.



Before entering, I took a quick walk around. Stadiums in Japan are usually purely functional, and this one is no different. The only feature outside is a statue of Ryōzō Hiranuma, a Yokohama native who was president of the Japanese Olympic Committee (this stadium was used in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) as well as Mayor of Yokohama. He is depicted carrying the Olympic Torch.



I picked up a sideline GA seat for 3,000 yen. You have to specify if you want to sit in the home or away section for these seats, as fans of the opponents are not allowed to sit together. As you can see below, sky blue (HamaBlue here) dominates. I did not have anything matching, but was handed a scarf upon entering, which allowed me to fit in ever so slightly.



Above is the supporters' section behind the north goal. Below is the back stand on the east side, which is mostly general admission for home fans. As you can tell, there are few seats available as kickoff nears.



The main stand on the west side is where the more expensive reserved seats are. It is not connected to the rest of the structure, so make sure you enter by the correct gate. Note that there is no cover anywhere within the stadium, with the sun low in the sky facing the supporters section for the entire afternoon.



If you want to sit in the shade, you need to sit with the away supporters, wearing orange in the distance below beneath the only scoreboard. Just make sure to check their team colours before hand. Although the two groups sit separately, they do mingle during halftime and there is no risk of any problems cheering for the visitors.



I spent the first half in the seat above, mostly shading my eyes from the sun. At halftime, I toured a little bit, but there is not much to see. Food stands had long lines, so I did not bother to try anything. One positive aspect here is that prices are the same as you would pay outside, as Japanese teams do not exploit their fans like American clubs.



At halftime, I moved down low in the corner, which provided the views above, and allowed me to avoid starting directly at the sun.



There is no security here, which proved troubling as several snipers snuck in and took potshots at the players. Above you see one of many victims on the day. Fortunately, the snipers use disappearing bullets, and the player was soon back on his feet. Below you can see a Yokohama player who had suffered a head wound earlier in the match.



In reality, of course, the game was just very scrappy, with a lot of tough fouls. The teams are tied on points in the table, with Omiya lying 5th and Yokohama 6th, the final two positions to enter the J1 promotional playoff, so a tight match was anticipated, but there was still too much overacting at times.



The play was also pretty choppy, with little sustained possession. There were a couple of goals, with Omiya's Hiroyuki Komoto scoring on a header off a corner early in the second half, while Yokohama replied when Kengo Kitazume drove one home from the top of the box after Omiya failed to clear, leading to joyful celebrations from the home supporters (above).



With the draw (barely visible in the scoreboard above), Yokohama fell out of the top 6 as Tokyo Verdy leapfrogged them with a win. There are four weeks left in the season, so they still have a chance but should they fail to do so, this game will be one of the reasons why.

Notes

Miura was listed as a substitute but did not play.

This was my 12th J.League venue and 69th venue in Japan.

Next Up

The Bledisloe Cup is taking place in Yokohama next weekend and I will show up for that. Then there are three B.League (the league that formed when the old bj League and JBL merged) games over the final week, with two in Tokyo and another in Yokohama. Check back for exciting recaps as my trip to Japan continues.

Best,

Sean

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers 28 at Cincinnati Bengals 21 - October 14, 2018


When I decided to add a few NFL games to the slate this year based on road teams I had yet to see, I planned to see the Steelers take on their AFC North rivals in Baltimore in early November. When that game turned out to conflict with an upcoming trip to Japan, I chose the other AFC North team that always plays Pittsburgh tough. Not Cleveland (although they tied back in Week 1) but Cincinnati. The Bengals and Steelers usually play hard-hitting games that are close, and I wanted to experience one for myself. So I booked a same-day return trip on Frontier and headed back to Cincinnati for the first time since seeing the Jays there in 2014.



The airport that serves Cincinnati is CVG, which stands for Covington (Kentucky), the nearest city when the airport opened. It is about 20 minutes to downtown Cincy by taxi (slightly longer by an infrequent bus), but I recommend getting dropped off in Covington and walking across the Roebling Suspension Bridge (above). Not only do you avoid the worst of the traffic heading to the game, but also you get a good view of the stadium from the bridge (below). Many fans take advantage of the cheap parking in Covington and do the same, so you will have company on the walk across.



I did not have a ticket, so I went in search of scalpers as I neared the stadium. There was only a single guy, who had a great seat down low at midfield. Those are the most expensive seats, but they offer the worst viewpoint, so I moved on. No fans had an extra that I saw, and with kickoff approaching, I made my way to security. Once through, I bought a ticket online. Surprisingly there was no price drop as kickoff approached, so I just got the cheapest ticket available, knowing that I would not sit there.



Instead, I went to Section 148, where you can stand under the overhang or in an open aisle seat. A very light drizzle commenced around the same time as the game, so I moved back and forth for much of the first half. As you can see above, all fans stand in this area, so there is always room in an aisle seat or two and you can get quite close, as I did for the picture below.



The end zone is no different, with fans standing from start to finish. It can be tough for shorter people such as myself but, as many fans decide to stand elsewhere on the concourse, there are spots available in the seating bowl with a clear view.



At halftime, The Ohio State Marching Band performed, playing "Hang On Sloopy" and the drawing of the script Ohio, both of which drew loud cheers from those who had remained in their seats for the show.



When that was done, I moved upstairs for a different look. Taking the ramp, I didn't get there until the second-half kickoff. There is a canopy covering the top 10 or so rows, something to remember if you are attending a game where rain is in the forecast. Up here, fans stay seated as well, so it is quite a bit more comfortable, though as you can see below, far away.



Note how much closer the end zone seats are below. I simply prefer being close to the action, so after a couple of possessions, I raced back down the ramp to watch the rest of the game from the lower bowl.



I stopped briefly at the 200 level and snapped a picture there as well (below). There are a few sections on either side of the club seats that seem quite relaxed and again, fans are seated.



Overall, I was quite glad to get back to Paul Brown Stadium. I always prefer to see a venue twice, something that was not possible during my 2013 NFL trip. Even though I didn't have time to tour the whole stadium again, I was able to relax and enjoy what turned out to be a pretty good game.

The Game

The story here was how both teams scored late in the half, only to have the other team score even later. With 5:25 to go in the first half and the score tied at 7, the Steelers took possession on their 25 and marched the length of the field over 8 plays, culminating in a James Conner 1-yard touchdown, his second of the afternoon (Le'Veon Bell was not missed on this day as Conner ran for 111 yards). That left 1:07 on the clock, which was more than enough time, especially after the Bengals Alex Erickson ran the kickoff back to the Steeler 49 and a penalty added 5 more yards, Andy Dalton completed 5 consecutive passes, with the final one a 14-yard touchdown strike to Tyler Boyd, his second TD catch on the day that sent us to halftime tied at 14.



A Pittsburgh field goal accounted for the only points of the third quarter, and another late in the fourth gave them a 20-14 lead with 3:32 left. After a touchback, the Bengals started from their own 25 and ran 8 pass plays to get to the Steeler 11 with 1:24 to go. Another pass to A.J. Green gained 3 yards, but Green ran out of bounds to stop the clock. Big mistake as Pittsburgh did not have to burn a timeout. On the next play, Joe Mixon ran it in from the 4 (that is him celebrating above) and fans went nuts as the game was tied. The extra point was successful and Cincy had the lead, but there was still 1:18 remaining when Pittsburgh took over on their own 23 after the kickoff return. Ben Roethlisberger began the drive with a couple of short passes to JuJu Smith-Schuster but two incompletions brought up 3rd and 10. Another incompletion was called back on a defensive holding call on Dre Kirkpatrick, giving Pittsburgh a first down at their own 46 with 22 seconds left. Cincinnati still had the advantage, but a 23-yard completion to Smith-Schuster put the ball on the Bengal 31. Pittsburgh was in field goal range and called timeout, but ran another play first. Helped by an illegal pick that wasn't called, Roethlisberger connected with Antonio Brown who raced to the end zone to give Pittsburgh the lead with just 10 seconds left. The two-point convert failed, but again their was a Bengal penalty, and Pittsburgh succeeded on their second try to make it 28-21. That's the way it finished as Cincinnati couldn't pull off the miracle comeback, falling to 4-2 while Pittsburgh is now 3-2-1.



In the NFL, a minute at the end of a half can be an eternity. The rules, timeouts, and defensive paranoia allow for several small plays, and that was true in both halves in this game. Of course, Bengal fans think the illegal pick cost them the game, but the Steelers were in field goal range by then. I know it is counter-intuitive, but a bit more time wasting when the Bengals had the ball late would have helped. Then again, so would more defensive pressure on the Steelers final drive. Either way, clock management was not ideal at the end of either half, something that is all too common in the NFL these days.

Notes

Again I was fortunate to have clear skies when leaving New York, giving me a clear view of the entirety of Central Park...



...and Staten Island. Click on the pictures to see them in full size.



Next Up

I'll be in Japan from Wednesday and looking to see a few sporting events while I am there. The most interesting will be the Bledisloe Cup rugby match between Australia and New Zealand, but I also hope to see some soccer and baseball. Recaps will be posted here, so check back on occasion.

Best,

Sean