Saturday, May 30, 2009

Finals Schedules Conflicting!

The NHL has already started the Stanley Cup Finals, thankfully avoiding the potential 8-day wait that would have occurred had either semi-final series gone one more game. However, two games of the schedule conflict with the NBA Finals, dates for which are decided well in advance of the playoffs.

In particular, game 4 of the Stanley Cup is on at the same time as game 1 of the NBA finals (Thursday June 4th), while game 6 (not looking likely given the way Detroit is playing) and game 3 also share the same time slot (Tuesday June 9th). I'm really hoping for the Cup Finals to make it to game 6 so we can get a ratings comparison - both games will be on national networks, and I'd expect the NBA game to dominate the ratings war. Not sure what NBC is thinking there, you would expect them to try to avoid going head-to-head with the more popular NBA. But as a sports fan who wants to see both series, I'm a bit disappointed that I'll be missing at least one game and maybe two. And since I am living in Japan without cable at the moment, switching channels is not an option. I guess the only solution is to fly to Singapore and watch the games there. So I will!

Tomorrow, I'm off to Tokorozawa to watch the Seibu Lions minor league team in the afternoon, and their major league team in the evening, will have a report on that on Wednesday.



Thursday, May 28, 2009

Yakult Swallows 2 at Chiba Lotte Marines 7 (Eastern League) - May 27, 2009

I mentioned a while back that I was going to give Japanese baseball a second chance. After all, I like baseball and I live in Japan, so I should be going to some games. So what if the stadiums are usually terrible, and the games long - I've got nothing better to do, right?

The Minors in Japan

It was with this positive attitude that I headed to Musashi-Urawa, where the Chiba Lotte Marines have their minor league team. In Japan, each of the 12 baseball teams has only one minor league squad. There are two minor leagues: one in the Tokyo area, called the Eastern League, which has 7 teams; and the 5-team Western League, located mostly in Kansai. With one exception, these teams retain the same name and uniform as their parent club and no marketing is done to attract fans. Most games are in the afternoon, which limits the number of fans that can attend; and usually the parks are tiny and without any amenities. It's old-school minor league ball, where the game matters more than the event, so I was looking forward to the experience.

The teams don't separate their rosters between the majors and minors - here's the Marines 2009 roster, all the players who played in the game I saw are listed here. Lesser players often move between the two squads without the necessity of a call-up or demotion; there is no limit to the number of times they can be sent down. And with so many players on the roster, uniform numbers go into triple digits, a strange sight!

The Stadium

I took the train up to Musashi-Urawa - about a minute before the station you can see Lotte Urawa Kyujo from the train. After getting out of the station, it's about a 10-minute walk straight south to the ballpark (I use this word lightly, it's really just a field). Upon arriving, you are greeted by absolutely nothing - no ticket window as there are no tickets - it's just free entry and sit where you want. Even then, seating options are limited - I had arrived about 20 minutes before the game, and most of the seats were taken on the 3rd base side, so I moved over to the first base side (you have to leave the stadium ground to do this) and found a seat at the far end of the benches. It's free, so you can't complain much, but the benches on the first-base side, which are reserved for the visiting team's fans, are about 25 years old and in terrible shape, as you can see below. After 9 innings there, I needed a massage - very uncomfortable. Turns out I was lucky though, many people who arrived after me had to stand to watch the game. Next time, I'll get there a bit earlier and try to sit on Lotte's side.

The infield is entirely dirt, and the outfield is grass. There is netting around the entire field to protect nearby houses from foul balls. The train tracks run beyond left field and there is always a train rumbling by. There are no food stands or souvenir shops at all, and no seats behind home plate. There is a manual scoreboard which doesn't even show hits and errors, and there are two ball/strike/out displays that use the coloured lights prevalent in Japan. The visiting bullpen is just down the right field line, but is hidden from view by a large hedge, although you can hear the pitches hitting the catcher's glove just behind you, an interesting sensory experience. As is the case in Japanese ballparks, the fans are overprotected, with fencing all the way along the baseline. As well, there's one guy who stands next to the fans and blows a whistle whenever a foul ball heads in their direction. Very difficult to get hurt here I think. The fencing makes good pictures difficult with my crappy camera, unfortunately I could not find a spot where there was no fence to obstruct the view. If I gave up my seat to wander around and take more photos, I'd lose the seat, so I decided to just sit back and watch the game unfold, along with my fellow Yakult fans shown here.

The Game

Neither starting pitcher had any experience in the NPB. Kazunari Abe (warming up in the picture here) started for Lotte and pitched 5 scoreless innings, though he was not overpowering, he threw strikes and was helped out by some good defensive plays. Hitoshi Yamamoto was Yakult's starter, he also lasted 5 frames but gave up 4 runs in the second, 3 coming in on a bases-loaded double by Marines' second baseman Masato Watanabe, who has spent parts of each of the past 8 seasons with the big club, but is too weak a hitter to stick with them.

Yakult halved the deficit in the 6th when Toshihiro Nakao smacked a 2-out double to score 2 runs off rookie reliever Tetsuya Yamamoto. But Lotte's third pitcher, Kodai Matsumoto, shut Yakult down for 2 innings, and then Chiba first baseman Takumi Kohbe (pictured here) smacked a 3-run shot in the bottom of the 8th to close out the scoring. Tatsuya Uchi pitched a 1-2-3 ninth with 2 Ks to end the game and Lotte had an easy 7-2 win.
The game was not that exciting, but it was still interesting. It was so quiet you could hear the players cheering after every pitch, and the quality of play was quite good. Pitchers are not that strong, there were not that many strikeouts and a lot of foul balls, but they were able to keep batters off-balance, particularly the Chiba hurlers. A number of hits were of the protective swing variety, hit just hard enough to flare into the outfield for a single. There were exactly 300 pitches by my count, and at 2:47, the game was not overly long, although it did drag at times. Still, it was worth the trip and I'll probably head back for another game in the near future.

There's no easy way to compare the quality of this league to a minor league in the US - teams here are a mixture of young players with a limited future, taxi players who move up and down (such as Watanabe), and maybe a few players on their way down. I feel that you have a much better chance of seeing a future star in AA or AAA then you would here, as the good players are usually added to the big club's roster immediately. Still, the players are talented, and play a good fundamental game.

The scoreboard

Overall, I really enjoyed my day here. With no fans chanting for 9 innings, no blaring music, no between-inning promotions, it was pure baseball. Sure, the NPB is missing a potentially sizable revenue stream here, but I'm glad. By keeping the minor leagues low-key, the real fans can sit back, relax, and just enjoy a quiet afternoon at the ballpark.

Next Tuesday, I'm going to visit Seibu's minor-league ballpark, and then see their major league team in a night game next door. It's a baseball doubleheader - I can't wait!



Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Why European Football sucks

Well, another 10-month season has passed and the most popular league in the world continues to bore me to tears. Not the games, but the standings. Yet again in the English Premier League, the top 4 teams are Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal in some permutation. It's been four years since another team finished in the top 4 (Everton finished 4th in 2004/05). By finishing in the top 4, these teams guarantee their place in next year's Champions League, and with it, tens of millions of dollars in sponsorship revenue. This is money the other 16 teams in the EPL will not receive, and obviously the best teams simply get better by spending the windfall on the best players available during the transfer window. The only way to improve is to find an owner with bottomless pockets who starts spending his money on the top players, which is how Chelsea moved up under Roman Abramovich

I cheer for West Ham (they were the home team in my only EPL visit) and know that they will never contend for a championship. The best they can hope for is a position in the newly-named Europa League. Don't get me wrong, the games themselves can be thrilling and the league boasts the top players in the world. But in North American sports, the goal for each franchise is a championship, and even terrible teams can build a winner (witness the Tampa Bay Rays, Chicago Blackhawks or Denver Nuggets) through smart drafting, shrewd trading, and a timely free agent or two. In the EPL, the goal is simply to avoid relegation (the bottom 3 teams in the league are demoted to the league below and lose millions of dollars in revenue, according to this article from CNN).

It's not just England that suffers this dreary consistency. Spain's title has been contested between Real Madrid and Barcelona 4 out of the past 5 seasons. Italy sees AC Milan, Juventus, Inter, or AS Roma competing for the championship, although sometimes other teams make a run for it as Fiorentina did last year. In Scotland, Celtic and Rangers always make up the top 2 (unfortunately, the supporters of these two clubs are divided along religious lines and tragedy sometimes strikes). France has seen Olympique Lyonnais win 7 titles in a row, a streak that has finally ended this year. Germany's Bayern Munich is the dominant team there, but the title this year was won by VfL Wolfsburg, their first league title in history. I'll be interested to see how they compete in next year's Champions League.

All of the top teams in these major European leagues receive their Champions League cash and all are able to maintain their dominance because of it. Interestingly, the other leagues complain that the English teams get too much of the money (about 25% of total Champions League revenues in 2008) which has allowed the EPL to become the premier league in the world. I find it hypocritical that these teams benefit from unbalanced payouts in their own leagues, but have the nerve to complain when they suffer under the exact same system.

There are tournaments such as the FA Cup where a lesser team might go on a run and get to the semi-finals or even finals, as Portsmouth did last year. But their victory was the first in 12 years by a club other than the big 4. West Ham came close in 2006, losing to Liverpool on penalties in a classic encounter. Some argue that the Carling Cup is a chance for smaller clubs to grab a trophy, but this is often because the big teams choose to play their second-stringers for these matches, lest their stars become overtired or injured. Even then, Manchester United won it this year.

This problem will not easily be solved. As long as the top teams continue to receive such large sums of money for playing in the Champions League, they will always be able to afford the best players, and the cycle will continue. There is no draft to give the lesser teams a chance to develop and star players on weaker teams usually move to the top teams, usually because they want Champions League exposure. There is really no hope for long-term fans of the have-nots. This is why European football, despite all of its beauty and drama, cannot compete with North American sports for overall interest - when 80% of your teams are eliminated before the first match of the season, there's something wrong with your game.



Friday, May 22, 2009

Off to Singapore on the A380!

I've got a month between the trip to Australia and my trip back home, so I decided to use an upcoming weekend to fulfill one of my goals for this year, which is to fly on the Airbus A380 aircraft. Singapore Airlines flies the plane between Tokyo and Singapore daily, and I was able to use my Air Canada miles to get a free ticket. And the ticket is actually completely free! No taxes, no airport fees, no nothing. Hard to believe, but I guess Air Canada doesn't care since I'm flying on another airline.

Of course, before setting the dates, I had to check if there was some sort of sporting event that I could attend. Fortunately, the S.League has their League Cup that week, and I'll catch a game on June 4th, a couple of hours after I land, assuming the plane is on time. It'll be a tough squeeze to get from the airport to the stadium in two hours, but Singapore is small and efficient, so I should be able to make it. I'll post a report here after the game.



Playoff Thoughts - NBA, NHL, and AFC Champions League

The sports world grinds on and it looks like a rematch with Pittsburgh and Detroit in the NHL, while the NBA might actually have an upset or even two in the semi-finals. I'd love to see Denver and Orlando in the finals here, if only so I won't have to listed to any more Kobe vs. LeBron stuff, although I doubt it will happen as the NBA has a way of getting their favoured match-ups.

Go Nuggets

I saw the Nuggets play Oklahoma City back in April, and they won handily, but I wasn't impressed by their defense. I didn't think they'd make it this far, but they are now just 3 wins away from the finals, and I'm cheering for them. I think that they let up against the Thunder in what was essentially a meaningless game, and they put on an offensive show for the fans. But when the playoffs rolled around, they stepped it up. Obviously in a sport like basketball, you can't judge an entire team from one performance, and Denver fooled me. I hope that by publicly supporting them, I don't jinx the Nuggets like I did the Canucks (update: I did).

In the East, Cleveland lost a tough one to Orlando, although the ending of close basketball games is so anti-climatic with all the fouls and time-outs and commercials. I'll never understand the logic that a team should commit an infraction to increase their chances of coming from behind, to me it's the biggest flaw in basketball (except for the officiating). Sure, free-throw shooting is part of the game, but it just kills the flow of the game.

Oilers-Penguins comparison

Returning to the NHL, I heard an interesting stat on TSN's broadcast today (I love streaming!). No team that lost the Stanley Cup Finals has made it past the first round in the following season since Dallas in 2001. You have to go even further back to find a team that made it to the semi-finals after losing the Final the year before. That was in 1996, when Detroit lost to eventual champion Colorado a year after being swept by the Devils. The Red Wings recovered though and won the next two Stanley Cups. And it's been 25 years since a losing team returned to the finals - that was when the Edmonton Oilers avenged their defeat at the hands of the Islanders back in 1984, which started their 5-cup dynasty.

The similarities between the 2009 Penguins and 1984 Oilers are noticeable. A young superstar (Crosby/Gretzky), a scoring machine (Kurri/Malkin) playing with an incredibly talented nucleus who are changing the game. Their defense may be occasionally suspect as it was today against Carolina, but the offense seems capable of picking up the slack in any game.

If Pittsburgh faces Detroit in the finals, look for a lot of "Passing the Torch" stories comparing this year to the 25th anniversary of the Oilers wresting the Stanley Cup from the Islanders.

AFC Champions League

My adopted J League team, Kawasaki Frontale lost a tough game to Korean side Pohang Steelers on Tuesday, causing them to finish in second place in Group H. This means they have to play their first elimination game on the road, and they travel south to face fellow J Leaguers Gamba Osaka in what will be a tough match, to be played on June 24th. I'd like to go and make it a sports weekend in Kansai, but I'll be back in Ottawa visiting family at that time. But don't worry, I'll make sure to post the result here as I know everyone will be just dying to know what happens.



Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Back from Australia

Down Under

I'm back from my 8 days in Australia, surely one of the world's greatest sporting destinations. My trip was more for pleasure though, so I won't go into detail of my time spent there on this blog, which is supposed to be about sports trips. But it was a great trip, saw lots of old friends, drank lots of good beer and wine, and spent a couple of wonderful do-nothing days on the beach in the Gold Coast. I did see two rugby games, one union and one league, and have posted separately on my experiences there. I'll post a few pictures here though, just to give you a feeling of my trip.

Surfer's Paradise in the afternoon and evening

Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge from the Manly Ferry

Flying Jetstar

I do want to mention that I flew Jetstar from Tokyo to the Gold Coast and was duly impressed with their service. As a low-cost carrier, they don't offer free meals, instead you have the option to pay extra for two meals, about $30. If you don't prepay for the meal, you can still order on board, and selection and prices were reasonable. The quality of the food was also better than expected. They also had an entertainment system for rent for $9, which offered a good choice of recent movies, TV shows, and games. The planes were comfortable, staff was friendly, and the flights were on time. Perhaps their domestic service is less reliable, but for a cheap flight to Australia, I don't think you can beat Jetstar.

TV Sports in Australia

Recently I lamented the poor quality of televised sports in Japan. Spending a week in Australia only made me realize how bad it really is here. With 3 Fox Sports channels, you can watch dozens of rugby games live every week, cricket, Aussie Rules, English soccer, and even a few North American sports. The morning I arrived I turned on the TV to see Pittsburgh and Washington duelling it out in game 5 (live!); yesterday before I left I saw a few innings of the Mets in San Francisco, again live. Why, with 4 channels here, can't J Sports even come close to this level of live sports will always baffle me.

I'm a Jinx

Just before I left, I posted that the Vancouver Canucks were looking good for the finals. At the time I wrote that, the Canucks were up 2 games to 1 over Chicago, and leading game 4 1-0 with about 5 minutes to go. With Vezina Trophy candidate Roberto Luongo in net, it sure seemed like the 'Nucks were on to the semi-finals at least. About one minute after I posted that, though, Martin Havlat scored for Chicago, who went on to win in overtime. I wasn't worried though, and went off to Australia, figuring the Canucks would rebound at home. As you likely know, they did not, and were quickly eliminated in 6 games. The connection between my post and the Canucks collapse is clear; I apologize to other Canucks' fans for my jinxing them.

I'll post more on the NBA vs NHL playoffs separately, but that's all for now.



Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gold Coast Titans 18 at Brisbane Broncos 32 - May 15, 2009

It's time for Friday Night Football, with the Broncos hosting the Titans. No, it's not Denver vs Tennessee in a bizarre off-season NFL matchup, but an NRL battle with the Brisbane Broncos hosting their local rivals, the Gold Coast Titans. The Titans are an expansion team, playing in their third NRL season, while the Broncos are the league's most successful franchise, winning 6 titles in their 20 years of existence. With the two cities only an hour apart, this match was dubbed the Queensland Derby, and plenty of Gold Coast fans had made the trip to cheer on their side.

The League

The NRL has 16 teams, mostly based in the Sydney area, but with 3 teams in Queensland, and one each in Melbourne, Canberra, and even New Zealand. Each team plays each other team once or twice for a total of 24 games, played over 26 weeks as each team gets 2 bye weeks. The top 8 teams make the playoffs, with the first round setting up normally with the 1-seed hosting the 8-seed and so on. However, even if the first seed loses, they advance to the next round - essentially the four winners advance plus the two highest-seeded losers. The two-highest seeded winners advance directly to the semi-finals, while the remaining 4 teams play an elimination round. The winners advance to the semis, and those winners play in the Grand Final. Got it? If so, please explain it to me!

The Rules

Rugby league is a bit different than union, and actually resembles American football in that the offense must kick the ball away if they don't score in 6 possessions - in other words the team loses the ball on their 6th tackle, so they kick it away before they are tackled. However, there are no stoppages in play after a tackle (the defense must move 10 yards off the ball), and the clock continues to move, even when the ball is out of bounds. It's a quick game, with 2 40-minute halves, and takes less than two hours to complete. The action is pretty much non-stop and keeps you in your seat for the duration of the match.

There are two main types of scoring: tries (like a touchdown) worth 4 points and are followed by a conversion attempt worth 2 points, and penalty goals, also worth two points. There are also drop goals which are kicked through the uprights on the fly, but these are quite rare in Rugby League.

The Stadium

Suncorp Stadium is located in the suburb of Milton, a short walk from Roma St station. It is one of the larger rugby grounds in the country, with a capacity of 52,500. There are three seating levels, the 300, 500 (seems to be a club level), and 700 levels. The stadium is perfectly rectangular and seats are right next to the field. The seats are painted gold and maroon, which are the colours of the Brisbane Broncos, with a wavy pattern throughout the stadium.

Food options are limited, with burgers, pies, and sandwiches being the most common. There was a Red Rooster stand as well for chicken enthusiasts. Nothing special to report there.

Transport is excellent, particularly after the game when dozens of buses wait to take passengers to one of 4 areas of town. As well, if you are holding tickets, you ride for free. And there are two train stations nearby.

The Game

The Titans were suffering several key injuries and were not expected to do well, but after Brisbane's Israel Folau scored a try (pictured above), the Titans responded with one of their own. Brisbane again took the lead, only to have the Gold Coast reply shortly thereafter. With the Titans converting both tries and Brisbane missing both, the score was 12-8 Gold Coast at half-time.

Brisbane used the interval to adjust their strategy and it showed, with two quick tries, both by Folau and both converted. Gold Coast replied with a converted try of their own to make the score 20-18 Broncos. With 8 minutes to go though, Brisbane broke through the line again, and Folau added a 4th try to close out the scoring. The final was 32-18 Broncos, but the game was much closer than the score indicates.

It was my second NRL game, and I'm beginning to appreciate the game. I still prefer rugby union, which seems a bit tougher and more physical, but league offers more scoring and more continuous action, and is easier to understand. I'll keep the NRL Road Trip idea in mind for a few years hence.


Each team was sponsored by a major corporation which became part of the name. The Broncos were referred to as the Wow Brisbane Broncos. I originally thought it was because the team was so amazing, but later realized that Wow is an online electronics store. The Titans are similarly referred to as the Jetstar Gold Coast Titans. I know that sponsorship is part of the game, soccer uniforms change regularly when the sponsor changes, but I wonder how long until North American sports see the revenue potential. Will we see the Rogers Toronto Blue Jays anytime soon?

Annoying Fans

Despite each half being only 40 minutes long (with almost no clock stoppages), many fans felt that they couldn't wait until half time to buy a beer or use the facilities and went up and down the stairs. With a game that has non-stop action, this is quite frustrating, as you can miss a key play at any time. When people see a movie that is 2 hours long, do they get up 3 times? No! So why in sports do so many consider the game (and other fans) secondary to their own personal wants? Please sit down during the action!

Noticeable Differences

There were some interesting differences in this game that are worth noting. First is the clock. It doesn't stop unless there is an injury or a video replay. Even after a try, the clock continues to tick while the conversion is lined up. The process takes a minute, so scoring with 2 minutes left effectively ends the game.

After scoring, the offense gets the ball again on the kickoff. The logic is that they are unlikely to score again from so deep in their territory, and when teams are evenly matched, this generally works out as tries are usually exchanged 1-1 and most games seem close. But when one team is dominant, they can string together a 3 or 4 try run to make the game a laugher. Still, I find the logic that the defense is punished for giving up a try by being forced to stay on the field until they can stop their opponents. Seems fair to me.

They also have a video replay to confirm tries. What's interesting about it is that unlike the NFL, where the referee announces whether the ruling on the field stands, the video referees decision is shown on the scoreboard as Try or No Try. Everybody's attention is focused on the big screen as the replays are shown, and fans can decide for themselves. Then the replays are stopped and it's decision time. The NRL logo spins around, finally revealing the critical words - even the players are watching for the result. It really makes the video replay process more interesting and the NFL should think about modifying their horribly boring replay procedures.

A final difference is in the schedule. Although the full draw is published at the beginning of the season, the actual game dates are not released for the later rounds. So I know the Broncos play the Titans again in the Gold Coast in round 20, which is July 24-27, but I don't know which day. This makes planning a road trips a bit difficult if you are looking at a longer trip, but it seems like the dates are released several weeks in advance, so short-term plans shouldn't be affected.

All in all, it was a great experience and I am looking forward to my next trip there, where I'll try to catch a few more NRL games.



Monday, May 18, 2009

Manly 28 at Northern Suburbs 31 (Shute Shield) - May 9, 2009

I arrived in Sydney early Saturday morning and after checking in, made my way to the North Sydney Oval to watch a Shute Shield matchup between undefeated Manly and the Northern Suburbs. The Shute Shield is a Sydney-area rugby union competition that features younger players, some of whom go on to play for the Wallabies, Australia's national team. I suspect it is similar to Class A baseball, in that few players from this level move on to the top ranks. The quality of play is very good; I was impressed with the skill shown by both teams, although there were a few missed tackles.

I was joined by two former colleagues, Damien and Mark, and we spent the time catching up and having a few drinks, so the game was not given full attention. It was a good battle though, with the Northern Suburbs enjoying an upset victory 31-28, with the winning points coming on a drop goal about 10 minutes from time. Manly did make it close at the end, but they couldn't get that final try (the picture above shows Manly at the goal line) and suffered their first loss of the season.

There were few spectators here, which allowed for wandering around to take pictures. The ground is in good shape, with several different seating areas, called stands, each named after a famous athlete. The O'Reilly stand is pictured above, named after Bill O'Reilly, an Australian cricketer (not the Fox News loudmouth). There is a bar on premises, and drink prices are not inflated as they are at other venues. Food options were simple, with pies and sandwiches about all you could get. After the game, we were allowed to walk onto the field, it is quite hard and I didn't envy the players having to be tackled on this surface for 80 minutes.

From the middle of the field after the game

Scrum early in the first half

No trouble finding the bar

It was a fun afternoon watching my first live rugby union game. It's tough to spot the penalties, especially when sitting at field level, so I'll have to study up on the game before the World Junior Tournament next month.

Later in the week, I saw a rugby league game in Brisbane and will update you on that next time. For now, here's a description of the differences between rugby union and rugby league.



Friday, May 8, 2009

Off to Australia

I'm flying to Australia overnight tonight, and it's a rare trip for me as sports is not the primary motivation. Jetstar, an Australian low-cost carrier, celebrated their second year serving Japan by offering a great deal between Tokyo and the Gold Coast. At $400 return, it's about half what you might normally pay, so I booked my tickets quickly, without thinking much about the sports aspect.

Jetstar doesn't offer a free meal, even on this long flight, which is one way they cut costs. You can buy your meal in advance, but I'd rather avoid airplane food if possible, so that doesn't bother me. They also sell blankets, pillows, and entertainment sets for those who need them. Jetstar has a bad reputation within Australia for always being late, we'll see if that applies to their international flights.

The reason I chose this timing was to catch a Super 14 game in Brisbane (about an hours drive from the Gold Coast) on the way back, while spending the rest of the time in Sydney. Turns out that I picked a terrible weekend for watching rugby, though.

Fortunately, I have a few friends there and I'm sure we'll find other things to do. There is a Shute Shield match tomorrow between Manly and the Northern Suburbs which I'm looking forward to (preview). Other than that, it will be a week without sports, as I'm traveling without a laptop, so will miss the rest of round 2 in the NHL playoffs. Looks good for Vancouver though, reminds me of 1994. Go Canucks!

I won't be updating for the next week, so I'll talk to everyone when I'm back.



Wednesday, May 6, 2009

TV Sports in Japan

For those of you wondering what televised sports is like in Japan, let me tell you - it's not that good. Well, that's not quite fair. Local sports are well-covered, but international sports are more difficult to find on the dial. And since Japanese sports fans only follow Japanese players, we really don't get a wide variety when they are shown.

In the big 4 North American sports, MLB is the most popular sport here by far, due to the presence of several Japanese stars. There is almost always an MLB game on live in the morning. Sounds good, until you realize that only 4 players are closely followed: Ichiro, Hideki Matsui, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Akinori Iwamura. So there's a steady stream of Mariners, Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays games, and not much else. The next week has Rays vs Yankees, Rays vs Red Sox, Yankees vs Blue Jays, and Red Sox vs Mariners. Want an NL game? There'll be one Astros-Cubs (who have Kosuke Fukudome) matchup in that time.

The other leagues are available, but only on premium cable channels such as J Sports and Gaora.

For example, there is one or two NBA games per week on J Sports. If you want more, you can subscribe to a package known as NBA League Pass, available on the Sky Perfect satellite service, which gives you a game a day for $200 for the season. Of course, you also need to set up the whole satellite system, although monthly charges are only $5 a month.

The NFL gets better treatment, with at least 2 live games every week, shared between Gaora and G+. The bad thing is that the early games are on around 2:15 am here, which is not conducive to maintaining a normal lifestyle. If they show a late game, or even better, a night game, then I will wake up to watch it, regardless of who is playing. All playoff games are shown live as well, which is more than can be said for the other sports.

As for the NHL, there's one game a week on J Sports. It is not live though, instead a game that was played several days ago is shown. The Stanley Cup Finals are usually on live however. Even then, there are no promises that the game will be shown in its entirety, should multiple overtimes occur. I recall one game, back in 2000, when Dallas was playing New Jersey in the finals, game 6, double overtime. Suddenly the broadcast ended, and a Japanese baseball game appeared in its place. I fired off a scathing e-mail suggesting that they get their priorities straight; strangely I never received a reply. And New Jersey won the cup about 10 minutes after the broadcast ended. Such are the indiginties endured by a hockey fan in Japan.

We do have an ESPN channel here, part of the J Sports family. I can watch one SportsCenter a day, but they block the NFL highlights. I guess the rights holder in Japan feels that watching highlights will decrease interest in other matches, when the opposite is likely true. It's kind of a joke that these highlights are blocked when anybody can watch them online.

In fact, with live streaming available for almost every game, these days I can watch what I want on the computer for free. But the quality is not always great and the service can be unreliable. Each league offers every game online for a fee. MLB has MLB.TV, but all live games are blacked out in Japan (update Aug 31st: Games are no longer blacked out and I've got MLB.TV - it's fricking amazing!). The NHL's Center Ice package is apparently very good, while the NBA has it's League Pass Online, and the NFL offers its Game Pass. But these services are not cheap and prevent you from using your computer to write interesting and exciting blog posts, such as this.

Of course, there are many other leagues and sports throughout the world, and there are plenty of those games available. I am able to see English Premiership matches most weekends, some rugby here and there, and a few other sports that are not really covered in North America. This variety has allowed me to become interested in sports that I hadn't even heard of a few years ago, and has led me to new destinations.

So it's not all bad. Still, as a fan of the big 4, I do wish that there was more availability on TV here. But until the Japanese become truly global sports fans and start following other players, teams, and leagues, I don't think going to happen.



Friday, May 1, 2009

Japanese baseball trying to shorten games

In one of my first posts, I mentioned that the NPB (Japanese pro baseball league) was trying to shorten games as part of the Green Baseball Project. Recently, while checking the schedule on their English site, I noticed a small green box in the top left: Let's 省 time - the Chinese character means shrink or make smaller. Clicking on the Japanese page shows that the average game time (9 inning games only) is 3:05, while including all games, the average time is 3:12.

The project page (in Japanese) shows the average times over the past 20 years. If you and your computer could read Japanese, you would see the average time is getting shorter, from 3:19 two years ago. Still, the goal is under 3 hours for a 9-inning game, so they've a lot of work to do. Just yesterday, a 9-inning game between Chunichi and Yokohama that ended 2-0 with 14 combined hits took an unbelievable 3:14. I'll check this out in a couple of months to see if the warmer weather helps the game times.



Yokohama Sports Doubleheader! Table Tennis and Soccer? - May 2, 2009

Recently received an e-mail from a sports media organization that noted that the World Table Tennis Championship was being held in nearby Yokohama. Although I am not a ping pong fan, I figured a quick trip to see the best in the world might make for an interesting afternoon. I then wondered if other games would be taking place in Yokohama this weekend, and was happy to find that the local ball team, the Yokohama Bay Stars, would be at home both Saturday and Sunday afternoon. Even better, a search of the J League schedule showed that my J-League team Kawasaki Frontale were visiting Yokohama Saturday at 3pm. With the soccer stadium a short walk from the table tennis arena, a sports doubleheader day was born!

Yokohama Arena

The table tennis got under way at 10am, and I wanted to get there early to see a few matches before moving on to the soccer game. It was about an hour door-to-door for me, and I arrived around 10:45. Yokohama Arena is a multi-purpose facility, often used for concerts. It recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, but looks brand new. Inside is all carpeted, and there are 3 levels - the entry level, from where you walk up to the first level of seats, and for those with the cheap seats (such as myself), another set of stairs to the top level. Even though the capacity is 17,000, I didn't think the seats were that bad, and I'd like to see a hockey game there. For today's table tennis tourney, there were 4 tables set up, and 4 matches would take place simultaneously.

One of the interesting rules is that eating inside the seating area is not permitted. Although not strictly enforced, this rule may be one of the reasons the arena maintains its appearance.

Table Tennis

After arriving, I made my way to the free seating in the second level. Despite the early time, the cheap seats were nearly full. I later figured out this was because a popular Japanese duo were to play at 11 am, and most people were waiting for that match. I found a decent seat at the other end of the stadium, and caught the last few points of the last quarter final match in mixed doubles. The Chinese team defeated the Slovakian team and this set the tone for the rest of the day, with European teams falling to Asian teams in nearly every match. I use the word teams here, because I saw matches in women's and men's doubles, but had to leave before the singles matches began.

At 11, round 3 of the women's doubles began. The Japanese team of Ai Fukuhara and Sayaka Hirano were playing at the other end of the arena and their match generated all of the noise. Most fans had ThunderStix, which I deplore, and cheered every point they won. With table tennis matches running a best-of-7 games format, with each game won by the first to 11 points (winning by at least 2 points), there was a lot of cheering from that side. The Japanese side defeated a German team in 6 games, but I was focused on the matches closer to me.
In one match, the Chinese side of Yue Guo and Xiaoxia Li, who are the number 1 seeds, easily defeated a German team in 4 quick games. It was clear the Chinese were superior from the start (the picture below is from the 5th point of the match), and so I didn't spend much time watching this one. As an aside, the Chinese advanced to the semi-finals the following day, defeating Fukuhara and Hirano in 4 games.

What intrigued me however, was the match between Polish and Singaporean duos. I noticed that one of the Polish players was missing an arm, just below the elbow. She was able to hold the ball in the crook of her elbow and serve from there, as shown in the picture below. I did a little research and found out that Natalia Partyka participated in both the Olympics and Paralympics in 2008, one of only 2 athletes to do so. I would have guessed that if you are good enough to make the Olympics, you might not be allowed to participate in the Paralympics, but that is not the case. Unfortunately though, she and her partner lost to the Singaporean side in 5 games. This was not unusual, as out of the 6 matches in the round that featured an Asian team against a European side, the Asian team prevailed.

The next matches were for round 3 of men's doubles. Despite a valiant effort by a Swedish team, the trend continued, with all European sides falling to their Asian counterparts. The Japanese men's team of Kenta Matsudaira and Jin Ueda lost to a Korean side, which disappointed the locals, who are hoping for at least one medal from a Japanese player. Fortunately, Jun Mizutani and Seiya Kishikawa advanced to the semi-finals, so there's still a chance.

Overall, it took me a while to get into the flow of the games; with so many matches going on it's difficult to concentrate on just one. I found the men's tennis more competitive, with most matches going 6 or 7 games, compared to the relative blowouts I saw in the women's draw. There also seemed to be more rallies, but that's likely as the talent differential is not as large.
I think I picked a good day to go, as there were still enough matches to see the variety in talent, but ultimately no surprises.

With such a small playing surface, it's difficult to see the movement in the ball from far away. I did notice that in doubles play, the players must alternate shots, which I found added to strategy, but I couldn't really see which player was doing what as the action was quite fast. Some teams tried a more finesse approach, with spins and drop shots, while others tried the stronger game relying mostly on forehand smashes. No doubt, this is a game better suited for TV, unless you are sitting tableside.

It was definitely a good experience to check this out; these are top quality athletes who gain exposure at the Olympics, but otherwise operate in relative anonymity. I am guilty of ignoring sports that aren't that big in North America, but will keep my eyes open in the future for more events of this nature.


I had to leave the table tennis tournament around 2 to make my way to Nissan Stadium, home of the Yokohama F Marinos. They were taking on Kawasaki, my adopted J League club, who I recently saw in the AFC Champions League.

Nissan Stadium used to be known as International Stadium Yokohama, and hosted the final game of the 2002 World Cup, won 2-0 by Brazil. I worked at the stadium as part of my duties as a FIFA reporter, so it was interesting to return as a spectator for the first time. The stadium is about 20 minutes from Yokohama arena, a nice walk through the Shin Yokohama area, passing close to the Ramen Museum. The final approach is over a large footbridge that brings you to the main entrance, where you can find tributes to the World Cup.

As is the custom, visiting and home fans must enter by different gates, no doubt to stop the hooliganism that plagues Japanese soccer matches. Although I was rooting for Kawasaki, their seating section was located on the first level behind one of the nets, facing into the sun. I guess I am not a true supporter as I would rather watch the game in relative quiet and in the shade. I therefore bought a home area seat, which allowed me to move around the stadium freely (those wearing Frontale colours were not permitted to enter certain parts) and also to sit in the shaded upper deck. Most people buy these seats, which means that one half of the stadium is nearly full, while the other, more expensive side, lies empty. Rather disconcerting.

Although Kawasaki had the early chances, Yokohama scored 2 first-half goals, both by virtue of superb individual efforts that left defenders on the ground and the ball in the net. For the second half, I moved down to the lower level where Frontale was shooting, and was rewarded with a late goal by Japanese national Kengo Nakamura. But it wasn't enough and the Marinos hung on for a 2-1 win. It wasn't a bad game, but at the same point, not a great one either. The pictures below are from the two different locations where I sat.

Although I enjoy soccer, I find attending games here less than interesting. The automaton-like actions of both cheering sections, the silliness of forbidding fans to mix, and the distance from the pitch (due to running tracks set around the entire field) make it difficult to really get into the game. To be fair, the quality of the play is not that bad, but overall I doubt I'll be watching many more J League games, focusing rather on Kawasaki's advance into the next round of the AFC Champions League.


Situated about 20 minutes from Tokyo, Yokohama is often overlooked by tourists intent on the Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima trifecta. But in my mind, Yokohama is a much more tourist-friendly city. Chinatown (picture from there below), Motomachi, and the seaside area all offer different perspectives that are not available in the more staid capital. With the sports facilities a bit closer, I'd suggest a day or two here to anybody visiting the area for their own sports road trip.

That's all my sports for now, but I'm off to Australia this weekend, with some local rugby in Sydney and then a Super 14 game in Brisbane later. Updates to follow here as usual.



P.S. In all 5 table tennis events, the 2 finalists were Chinese - wonder if there is any other sport where one nation dominates so completely?

NHL Playoff Road Trip - wish I could go

This year, the second round of the NHL playoffs is unique, as 2 of the 4 Western Conference teams are actually located in the east or midwest, i.e., within driving distance of the Eastern Conference teams. This allows for 6 of the 8 sites to be visited in a week, which would be a great road trip, if I was living close by at least.

Friday, May 1: Carolina at Boston
Saturday, May 2: Pittsburgh at Washington
Sunday, May 3rd: Anaheim at Detroit
Tuesday, May 5th: Vancouver at Chicago
Wednesday, May 6th: Washington at Pittsburgh
Friday, May 8th: Boston at Carolina
Saturday, May 9th: Pittsburgh at Washington
Sunday, May 10th: Carolina at Boston

Checking the AHL playoffs, there's a game in Grand Rapids on the 4th. There's even a minor league baseball game in Salem, VA on the 7th, to complete the schedule. And if the Celtics beat the Bulls, perhaps they'd have a game around the 11th. The Red Sox are at home on the 10th as well, but it's the Sunday Night Baseball game, which conflicts with the Bruins game.

It'd be a great trip, but tickets would be rather difficult (and expensive) to get on game day. Still, always fun to think about these things.