Japanese baseball returns after coronavirus delay

Japan's professional baseball league kicked off on June 19 after a three-month delay due to the coronavirus pandemic. But with games being played behind closed doors until early next month, teams have had to find creative ways to provide exciting fan experiences.

The Yokohama DeNA Baystars are one of Japan's most well-supported teams. Last year, their home games drew more than 2 million fans. The team has made a concerted effort in recent years to increase its fanbase, holding a range of events with players. Ahead of this season, they installed an additional 5,000 seats to accommodate surging demand.

But with fans not allowed into the stadium until July 10 at the earliest, the team has had to find new ways to keep fan enthusiasm running high.

These efforts include a program that allows supporters to buy seats for their pictures. For about $30, fans can have their photos placed on a seat during actual games. About 5,000 spots have been sold so far. And for hardcore fans who really miss the in-stadium experience, the team is offering a food service that delivers concessions to their homes.

"I went to 30 games last year, so I missed the taste of the food," said one fan who used the service.

The Baystars have also organized online meet-and-greets with their players. At a recent session, team ace Imanaga Shota thanked fans for their patience and vowed to work hard toward a successful season.

The team opened this unusual season with a three-game home series against the Hiroshima Toyo Carp. Large swaths of the stands were covered with a massive flag printed with the faces of supporters. The stadium's big screen monitor also displayed images of fans cheering from home.

Despite the support, the Baystars lost the first two games. But in the third, they notched their first victory of the year in come-from-behind fashion. Miyazaki Toshiro clinched a 2-1 win with a walk-off hit.

Ogawa Ai, a Baystars official, says the team was relieved to finally get the season underway, adding they are thinking of more ways to improve the fan experience.

With the tentative date for the return of fans just a few weeks away, officials are currently considering ways to ensure a setting that allows for cheering while also minimizing the risk of infection.

The league is planning to play 120 games of the original 143-game calendar. The all-star game and interleague play have been canceled.