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Space, Place, and Sports

At the intersection of geography and sports

A view of globalization at a Seibu Lions baseball game

A few weeks ago I attended my first professional baseball game in Japan, and as a sports fan I can say that it MORE than lived up to the hype.  I took a TON of photos and video of the game, but none of those will do it justice.  If you really want to “understand” Japanese baseball, you must experience it first-hand.  Even then, as an outsider you can only comprehend so much from watching the game, listening to the rhythmic chanting of the crowd, and eating food that you’re unlikely to find at even the oddest baseball game in the United States.

However, one geographic concept was on full display from virtually the start to the finish of the game.  It was nearly impossible to experience the game and not come away thinking about globalization.  I attended a Saitama Seibu Lions game this past weekend, and as someone commented on my Instagram post: “I appreciate the sponsorship by Met Life [sic] as a nod to globalism.”

That is definitely true, as MetLife has over 90 million customers in 60 countries, but is a U.S.-based company that sells insurance and annuities.  Many people know the firm has its name on the football stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., that is home to the National Football League’s (NFL) New York Giants and Jets, so it is no stranger to sports sponsorships.  However, a corporate name on a stadium is no longer a big deal in professional sports, especially in Japan where corporate names are regularly part of a baseball team’s name.

For example, I saw the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks play the Saitama Seibu Lions.  Fukuoka is a city on Kyushu, which is one of the four main islands of Japan.  However, SoftBank Corporation (the telecommunications subsidiary of SoftBank Group) purchased the team in 2005 from its previous corporate owner, Daiei (a Japanese supermarket chain).  The team changed its names from the Fukuoka Daiei Hawks to the Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks to reflect its new ownership.  The Saitama Seibu Lions only took on the placename moniker “Saitama” in 2008, nearly 30 years after the team relocated to the prefecture outside of Tokyo.  However, the team was called the Seibu Lions ever since Prince Hotels (a subsidiary of the Seibu Group) purchased and relocated the team to Saitama Prefecture in 1979.

So what did I experience at the game that really tuned me into the globalization of baseball in Japan?  Here are a few things that I noticed that personify globalization of the sport.

Presence of Multinational Corporations

Virtually any sporting event has corporate sponsorships, so it is easy to pick up on this aspect of globalization at a baseball game in Japan.  However, I saw some unexpected global corporations at the game I attended.

Outside of the stadium was a large plaza that contained a variety of food stands, but what stood out to me was the presence of KFC.  At most American sporting venues, fans do not have the opportunity to buy food from major corporations outside the stadium.  Usually fans have to be inside the venue to purchase these types of food items, so it was surprising to see the KFC outside the stadium.

A KFC stand outside the Saitama Seibu Lions baseball stadium.

The location of the KFC stand outside the stadium is very different from the American sporting experience, but KFC is a well-known quantity in Japan.  In fact, Japan is the third largest market for KFC following China and the U.S.  There are approximately 1,150 KFC stores throughout Japan, and the chain’s history in the country dates to the first store opening in 1970.

The other really interesting product on display was Blue Moon Belgian White beer, which is brewed by MillerCoors.  American beers are available throughout Japan, but because of Japan’s high tax on alcohol I did not expect to find an American “craft” beer at a baseball game.  However, there was a small stand just outside the stadium, but within the stadium grounds.

A view of L’s Craft selling MillerCoors’ Blue Moon Belgian White at a Saitama Seibu Lions baseball game.

Diffusion of American In-Game Promotions

I expected all the pre-game and in-game announcements to made in Japanese, but was very surprised to hear part of the starting lineups announced in English.  It was really surprising because there were no other announcements made during the game in English.  However, in the middle of the sixth inning the team ran a promotion that instantly rang a bell.  Like in many U.S. sports venues, the team flashed a “Kiss Cam” on the videoboard and zoomed around the crowd encouraging couples to kiss.

A view of the videoboard as “Kiss Cam” is set to begin at a Saitama Seibu Lions baseball game.

I expected there to be some influence of American marketing at a Japanese baseball game, but the majority of the time the only entertainment between innings was music blasting over the speakers and sometimes videos advertising Japanese products on the videoboard. So midway through the game I didn’t expect a very American promotion, much less the “Kiss Cam.”  Japanese culture is generally very conservative, and public displays of affection are frowned up.  So seeing a promotion that specifically encourage people to kiss was not something I anticipated seeing.  However, the people shown on the videoboard had no problem having fun with the promotion and sharing a kiss with their significant other, which sometimes included moms kissing their kids.

Global Movement of Athletes

Foreign-born players have been part of Japanese baseball since the 1930s.  However, players from other countries have occupied few spots on rosters because of restrictions that limited teams to two foreign players.  Those restrictions were revised in the mid-1990s, and teams may have up-to four foreign players on their active roster at one time.

The changes has led to a recent uptick in the number of players from Latin American appearing on NPB rosters (read more here).  Nonetheless I was surprised to see the hometown fans displaying Venezuelan flags and loudly cheering each time first baseman Ernesto Mejía came to the plate.

Saitama Seibu Lions fans waiving Venezuelan flags supporting first baseman Ernesto Mejía.

As Japanese baseball fans typically have individual chants for each player, I expected cheers for Mejía.  However, I did not expect to so clearly see fans prepared to chant for a player by displaying his country’s flag.  I also saw a Cuban flag displayed in the SoftBank Hawks’ fan section, so it is clear that Latin American players are having an influence on Japanese baseball.

Final Analysis of Global Connections

As I stated earlier, attending the game as a baseball fan was great, and my experience has only increased my appetite to watch more professional baseball games in Japan.  It was impossible for me to watch the baseball game without analyzing the experience as more than just attending a sporting event, but I am certain that I missed other aspects of globalization and other geographic concepts during the game.  Those thoughts may be discussed in a later post.

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Is Kazakhstan in Europe or Asia?

Asking a geographer to list the continents in the world can be a dangerous question because educational system around the world vary and what people learn typically divides academics into camps of seven continents or six continents. It’s complicated and confusing, and really has no right answer.

However, when it comes to sports continents don’t matter and organizations or teams can choose to be part of a confederation or league as they so choose.  In many situations these reasons are political; case in point is Israel.  Regardless of how you count continents, most people would agree that Israel is located in Asia.  However, the Israeli national football (or soccer if you’re an American or Australian) team, competes in competitions sponsored by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) such as the European championships and qualification for the World Cup (read more here).  It is not just Israel’s national football team that competes in Europe, as its track and field athletes also compete in European championships (read more here).  Despite competing in Europe, Israel’s national teams are consistently participate in European championships.

So it was quite a shock to me a few weeks ago when I was watching the 2018 Asian Games and I saw Kazakhstan participating in the competition
(FYI: The Asian Games are a quadrennial competition sponsored by the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA)).  Kazakhstan is a state that straddles the typical divide between Europe and Asia, although the majority of its land area resides in Asia.  Additionally, in most world regional geography textbooks Kazakhstan is part of a region called “Central Asia.”  The United Nations Statistics Division places the country in Central Asia as well (read more here and click “Geographic Regions” on the left sidebar).  From this perspective it shouldn’t be surprising that Kazakhstani athletes are competing in an Asian competition.  However, Kazakhstan’s national football team participates in UEFA competitions (a fact I already knew; read more here), so I was confused as to how Kazakhstan was competing in different continental championships.

Diving into the depths of the Internet to find an answer I found nothing.  I found a lot of pieces speculating about WHY Kazakhstan’s national football team joined UEFA after a seven-year membership in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).  However, I found nothing about WHY Kazakhstan participates in European football events, but otherwise competes in Asian sporting events.

People who closely follow association football are probably aware that Australia joined the AFC because the Australian federation felt participating in Asia would be an easier route to reach the FIFA World Cup finals than continuing to qualify for the finals through the Oceania Football Conference (OFC) and its half-spot in the field (read more here).  Prior to changing its confederation membership, Australia had not qualified for a World Cup finals since 1974, but has qualified for the three successive Cups since changing confederations after the 2006 Cup.  Despite its football teams moving to Asia, Australia is still a member of the Oceania National Olympic Committees (ONOC).

So when considering the case of Kazakhstan competing in two different continental competitions, is the country in Europe or Asia? The Kazakhstan national football team participates in European competitions (under the umbrella of UEFA), but the majority of its other sports federations compete in Asian competitions (sponsored by the OCA).  There are no explicit regulations that prohibit a country’s athletic teams from competing in different continental confederations, so is Kazakhstan is both European and Asian at the same time by choice.

My departure from UA

After five years working as a Full-Time Temporary Instructor in the Department of Geography at The University of Alabama, I am leaving the university. There are a litany of reasons I could detail about what has led to this change in my life. However, it all boils down to the fact that my wife has secured a new job working with the Department of Defense Educational Activity and we will be relocating to Japan.

I am writing about this change in my life not because I am interested in writing a “Quit Lit” piece. Instead it has come to my attention that some colleagues at UA and elsewhere are unaware about my impending move. It is not my intention to quit academia, although that MAY be what happens.

I am still very interested in teaching and researching and contributing to academia in other ways. I believe I have a lot to offer students in terms of teaching. I believe I have something to contribute to the research in my discipline, as I know my interests cover a broad spectrum (perhaps too broad). I believe I did a lot to increase the reach of my department through social media. Alas, I will not being doing any of that at UA.

So on to new experience, new employment (hopefully), and new avenues in my academic life.

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