TOKYO May 20 Can more baseball save Japan -- or at least Abenomics?
A set of recommendations to lift growth in Japan's economy drafted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's party seen by Reuters calls for slashing corporate taxes, reforming public pensions, and -- in a curve ball -- increasing the number of professional baseball teams to 16 from 12.
"Prosperous baseball teams could strengthen attachment to regional cities and help local economies thrive," said the report, which cited the success of U.S. Major League Baseball in nearly doubling from 16 teams to 30 since the 1960s.
Baseball is one of the most popular sports in Japan and draws more than 20 million fans to games each year, four times more than Japan's professional soccer J.League's top division.
Okinawa, where Abe is pushing to complete a long-planned relocation of a U.S. military base, could get government support to lure a baseball team, the report said.
Shizuoka, west of Tokyo, and two isolated areas that are losing population as Japan's population ages -- the island of Shikoku and the snow country centered on Niigata -- were also named as sites for possible new teams.
Baseball has deep roots in Japan, dating back to the 1870s, when the country began modernizing, and has spun off global stars such as New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka and Texas Rangers' ace Yu Darvish.
But most professional teams survive in Japan because losses can be treated as tax-deductible marketing costs for corporate sponsors, such as such as Orix Corp and Yakult Honsha Co.
For that reason, one expert was skeptical of the economic punch from launching new franchises.
"Unless there are companies that are willing to sponsor the new teams, this could be difficult," said Munehiko Harada, professor at the faculty of sport sciences of Waseda University.
"Without a solid financial foundation, it would be hard to poach good players and balance the strength of the teams."
Japan's current two-league system faced a critical moment a decade ago, when financial difficulties forced railway operator Kintetsu Corp to give up the ownership of its club.
Billionaire Hiroshi Mikitani's e-commerce company Rakuten Inc stepped in to create a new team in Sendai, north of Tokyo, in a move that saved the two-league system.
The Liberal Democratic Party's draft proposal on economic reforms was submitted to Abe, who is readying an announcement of reforms next month designed to help spur growth in the world's third-biggest economy. It was unclear if the baseball proposal would be included in Abe's final report. (Reporting by Junko Fujita,; Editing by Kevin Krolicki and Clarence Fernandez)