New Free Agency Rules

NPB logoChris Pellegrini and I started fairly regularly attending games together in the 2004 season. Like many other fans, we set out to watch a ballgame and instead engaged in a series of lamentations on the future of the sport punctuated by sudden cheers or exasperated sighs, maybe even a rendition or two of “Tokyo Ondo” if we were lucky. With 20/20 hindsight, it’s hard to remember what I was so worried about – Tokyo still had the legendary, Japan Series-winning Tsutomu Wakamatsu at the helm, which was great for us, and the Fighters had moved up to Hokkaido, which was great for the future of NPB (and was, for a time, opposed by Tsuneo Watanabe, as sure a sign as anything that the move was a good thing.)

On the other hand, there was ample anecdotal evidence that the under-25 set leaned toward soccer, a trend accelerated by the 2002 World Cup, of course, but helped by what seemed to be J-League’s superior organization – the Urawa Reds were not then what they are now and it was easy to find J-League fans supporting the whole spectrum of teams in the first division; it was even a safe assumption that fans would favor their hometown team – not so in baseball, where fans from the frigid North to the subtropical South saw Yomiuri on TV and the Giants and the Tigers effectively played home games almost everywhere they went.

Those were just potential causes of the real problem, though: baseball wasn’t run as a business.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’d love to see ad-free stadia in which players played just because they loved it, tickets were dirt-cheap, and fans packed the stands for love of the game, but that’s never been a reality anywhere for any sport. The reality was and is that business drives baseball in Japan just as much as it does in North America, the difference is only that, in MLB teams are businesses and in NPB teams are often unloved subsidiaries of businesses.

As the stack of empty paper Kirin cups grew and the jambalaya was digested (why Jingu took that one off the menu, I do not know), the talk got bolder, generally degenerating into a positive feedback cycle of who or what was idiotic and what obvious solutions to obvious problems were being ignored.

The real problem, though, was that most teams weren’t making money. Most teams didn’t even seem to be trying to make money. The Kintetsu Buffaloes and Orix BlueWave were facing a merger, which many, including yours truly, feared could lead to a contraction of the league, thus hastening the slide of baseball from the summit of Japan’s sporting mountain. Would fan interest wane with the number of teams? How would Japanese clubs be able to hold on to even good, much less great players if the competitiveness of NPB suffered? Would Japan even continue to produce greats?

I had unfounded nightmares of having to dig around for news on the grand old game as the game that glorifies falling down and pretending to be hurt and has entire leagues that score less than this year’s Swallows continued its Starbucks-like, homogenizing march over the sporting world.

But then there was a glimmer of hope. There was talk of a strike. I was by no means a fan of sports strikes in principle, but this one was long overdue.

Beloved Swallows catcher Atsuya Furuta was the NPB Players Association president and, while we agreed with Tuffy Rhodes that the strike was feeble, it was still a groundbreaking step in the right direction: the players and the fans seemed united against the owners who were causing the game to suffer through their negligence and incompetence. Chris and I said as much when we gave a TV reporter a bang by giving him a good rant of a fan interview on the way into Jingu before a game. (OK, Chris gave them one heck of an interview while I merely said I concurred – partly out of having nothing to add and partly because the game had already started and we were in a rush to get inside.)

Shinya MiyamotoThe NPBPA has come a long way since those days. Furuta has retired and another Swallow, shortstop and Japan captain Shinya Miyamoto, is now the Union president. On Wednesday, the League and the Union leadership met and agreed to shorten the time players have to be in the league before they become eligible for free agency.

Players drafted in the autumn 2007 draft or later will be eligible for free agency after only seven seasons, instead of the current nine. Players drafted prior to that will have to play at least eight seasons before being eligible.

This will not affect the Major League posting system as players will still need to play nine years before being eligible for free agency overseas.

There will also be a new system of compensation for teams losing players to free agency, which was summed up quite nicely at the fine new blog NPB Tracker:

Teams will be ranked A/B/C based on their payroll (foreign players’ salaries excluded for some reason). Teams in the “A” category (top three in payroll) will pay 80% of the player’s previous year’s salary, or 50% and a player. Teams with a “B” rank will pay 60% or 40% with a player. “C” rank teams (11-12) won’t be required to compensate for free agent signings. This is a drastic change from the current free agent compensation system.

Finally, the NPB decided to hold a collective draft instead of two separate drafts for high school and college or corporate league players. If more than one team tries to negotiate a contract with a player in the first round, a lottery will be held.

The question now is what this means for NPB. Some knowledgeable observers have argued that a free agency system better for the players will increase competition and spending among teams and, thus, bring NPB closer to being able to compete with MLB (although that is admittedly still far off.)

This is a compelling argument, and one that I think is probably true and represents, at least, the acknowledgement of reality. The nagging feeling of nostalgia is already creeping up, though. For quite some time, seeing top players play most or even all of their careers with one team, keeping fan loyalty, and loyalty to the fans, was one of the many things that made the Japanese game just that little bit more appealing than the American game.

In short, as NPB moves in the right business and competitive direction, one of many steps I’ve advocated from the bleachers for years, it’s hard to forget that one of the things that first drew me to the League, and back to being a baseball spectator, was that it wasn’t as business-savvy as MLB; that, in some small ways, it stood between the old days of baseball and the new, warts and all.

  • Ken

    Can we get a quick summary of the changes?

  • Sure.
    – Players signed in the autumn 2007 draft or later now have to play only 7 seasons (instead of 9) to be eligible for free agency.
    9 seasons are still required for overseas free agency, so the MLB posting system is unaffected.

    – The system of compensation for lost players has changed.

    – NPB will hold one collective draft, instead of separate drafts for high school and for college and corporate leagues.