NPB top official wonders why Olympics favored over pro baseball

(April 26, The Asahi Shimbun)
NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito is known for his calm and gentle demeanor but even he boiled over with frustration at the government's request that games be played behind closed doors for now.
Saito let his emotions fly at a news conference on April 24 after announcing that some Nippon Professional Baseball games would be played without spectators until May 11.
That came at the request of central and local governments to either cancel sports events or ban spectators during the state of emergency over the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was an agonizing decision,” Saito said. “But we remain unconvinced. Professional baseball is operated as a business. To forcibly stop it, it requires a detailed enforcement policy.”
Saito then expressed frustration over the apparent double standard set for the Olympics this summer, which officials are intent on holding and allowing fans in the stands, although spectators from overseas will not be allowed.
“If the (governments) says ‘No’ to sports events, then they need to offer a logical explanation involving the Olympics,” Saito said.
Without such an explanation as well as financial compensation, the commissioner said, “We will not accept this easily.”
It was a profound statement coming from the head of an organization that has publicly supported the hosting of the Olympics this summer and taken a role to operate as a test case to host a sporting event during the pandemic.
The league has provided the Tokyo Games organizers information on its anti-virus measures implemented for players on its 12 teams and spectators.
Last year, the league postponed its season opener until June 19 due to the pandemic and then held games behind closed doors until July 9.
Since then, the league and the teams spent a lot of money implementing anti-virus measures and led the sports industry in establishing a track record of holding games with spectators safely.
For that reason alone, it was unpalatable for NPB to accept the governments’ request to empty stands during the Golden Week holidays, when ballparks would normally be filled.
Professional baseball games “have been held under a completely controlled environment” and are different from “wining and dining in a group in a nonbinding situation,” Saito said. “Yet, the governments try to apply the same conditions uniformly and stop (the games).”
The NPB and the heads of its 12 teams held an emergency online meeting on the day and decided to ban spectators for games held in the areas that are under the state of emergency from April 27 to May 11.
It is the first time for professional baseball games to be held behind closed doors since July 9, 2020.
The current state of emergency was put in effect on April 25, but the league and teams decided to let the games proceed with fans on Sunday to avoid the chaos of dealing with refunds for fans holding tickets.
The affected contests are games hosted by the Yomiuri Giants, Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers and Orix Buffaloes--teams based in Tokyo and Osaka and Hyogo prefectures that are under the state of emergency.
Some of the affected games will be rescheduled to a later date. The Central League has already announced that five games will be played after the state of emergency is lifted.
The decision is yet another financial setback for teams that ran deficits in the billions of yen due to the pandemic.
The teams have drawn a road map to eliminate deficits over several years starting from this season.
However, by banning spectators, teams will lose proceeds from ticket sales, a main pillar of their operations.
After the governments’ request under the third state of emergency became known, officials of the league and 12 teams held a two-day emergency meeting.
Some teams proposed postponing games and rescheduling them at a later date.
But they concluded that it is difficult to forecast the future because of the unknown nature of the COVID-19 variants that are boosting the surge in cases.
The central government may extend the state of emergency after May 11 or even expand it to other areas, which means a widening financial hit for the baseball industry.
Even if they reschedule some games, there is no guarantee that teams can complete all scheduled games.
NPB will ask local governments to compensate for the processing fees for ticket refunds and other costs. But these expenses are miniscule compared to the scale of the teams' operations.
Saito fired a warning shot at the governments’ apparent eagerness to easily reverse course concerning the pandemic.