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By Alexis Muellner
Tampa Bay Business Journal
Updated: 8:00 p.m. ET April 30, 2006

Professional basketball is barking in Tampa Bay. You'll still have to drive to Orlando to see Shaq, Kobie and LeBron, but when the Tampa Bay Strong Dogs of the American Basketball Association start play here in November, for less than the price of a movie, you may see Japanese and Mongolian players, women and minority-owned teams, and teams from places like Pensacola, Raleigh and Peoria.

The move of a minor league pro basketball team from Harlem to Tampa Bay has some deep roots. It is the latest local investment by team owner Tatsuya Okawa and his Tokyo and New York-based company Strong-S Corp.

Okawa, 39, has become Japan's most well known strength and conditioning coach. He developed a following for a slow and safe training style that earned him pro athlete clients from baseball players like Hideo Nomo to players in rugby, tennis, figure skating and soccer.

Okawa also spent $10.5 million in Pasco County to build a new concept Sports+Field fitness and pro athlete training center. Sports+Field opened last fall and is debt-free.

The Strong Dogs, moving down from Harlem, N.Y., don't have a venue yet but are talking to several and will announce a home court soon.

Tampa Bay is a good fit, Okawa said through an interpreter. The proximity to the company's 29,000-square-foot training facility -- with its regulation court and state-of-the-art equipment -- means practice venue overhead is paid.

The team has given Japanese athletes a chance to shine plus the goal of opening doors for future participation at higher levels like the NBA.

Cross-marketing opportunities also are available given potential Japanese media coverage of the team's improving star, Kaz Nakagawa, who lead the team in assists and was No. 2 in scoring.

"We get attention for the team in Japan, and that's something we can leverage to promote the team and the company and the facility and Tampa Bay," said Moto Hasegawa, CFO/CEO of Kaizen, Okawa's sports management and sports licensing subsidiaries and a division of Strong-S, Sports+Field parent.

Target market
ABA Commissioner Joe ****** has ties to the Bay area, which has been on the league's radar. He founded the rebirth version of the league that had its heyday of sorts in the 70s with its signature red, white and blue ball.

****** didn't manage the league for the first three years, the same time the St. Petersburg Thunder Dawgs came and went. Nine games into the ABA 2000 season, the team was for sale.

But the ABA of today "has found its groove" and doubled its size to more than 60 teams heading into its next season. ****** brought down a salary cap to $120,000 from $750,000. He urges teams to play in small arenas. Breaking the league down to regional conferences keeps transportation costs low because teams can drive.

"We reduced the basic operating cost of a team from $1.2 million to $400,000 a year," he said.

A franchise fee was cut and replaced with a small "market reservation fee."

Teams keep all money in the market, and there's no revenue sharing from the teams, he said. "Teams have to have relationships with city officials, not-for-profit groups, youth groups, YMCAs and churches. You have to be a good citizen and the money will follow."

Inexpensive tickets from $5 to $15 also help, he said, and the quality of play is improving all the time, he believes. The league is a place for skilled younger players to be showcased and for former NBA stars to stay in the game.

In Florida, the league has teams in West Palm Beach and Jacksonville, and now Tampa. ****** anticipates other teams next year in Pensacola and Daytona Beach.

The Strong Dogs should succeed in Tampa Bay because the owners are "professional in every way," ****** said. "They attend meetings, they are good communicators and they do it by the book. It's a solid group."

Peaceful co-existence
Sports+Field was designed as a traditional, upscale membership club with a twist. An entire wing is available to pro athletes looking to train away from fan distractions.

"Sometimes if you train at a regular gym, you can't get the privacy you need to do what you want to do and people want to talk to you and you don't want to be rude," said John Jackson, director of client services and training for KMG Sports Management in Cincinnati and a 14-year NFL veteran with the Pittsburgh Steelers. KMG held an NFL workout there this year and plans to bring basketball players down in the next few weeks.

The facility provides the agent a lot of convenience.

"In the past, we had different places to train," Jackson said. "Speed worked in one place, weights somewhere else and now with the training facilities in Tampa, it's all in one location."

A few months since opening on S.R. 56 near Seven Oaks in Wesley Chapel, the business isn't yet profitable, but Okawa's strategy is to give the business time to allow the market to develop, said S+F marketing director Curt Lutz. What was a trickle of cars along S.R. 56 before construction began is now actual traffic.

"He wanted to allow the community to develop around it and become part of the club," Lutz said.

It's a patient, Eastern approach -- one that matches the training method Okawa developed in Japan. The whole nature of the training is to bring clients along in a safe manor that allows the body to grow and respond to its growth, he said.

The club's training staff, like vice president/director of athletics and sports performance Aaron Komarek, has a lengthy resume working with elite athletes.

The business strategy is in line with choices Okawa has made in life. He's the son of the founder of Japanese gaming and electronics giant Sega, and had access to a huge inheritance but decided to give that money away, he said. Through hard work, he built his own corporation.

Okawa could have come here and dropped $2 million on a condo or on having fun in the community. But a modest apartment he rents off Bruce B. Downs is only $1,000 a month, S+F CEO Hasegawa said. He's here to stay.

The presence of the business was a sign of changing demographics in Pasco County, said Mary Jane Stanley, economic development director.

"[Saddlebrook] has been the only game in town," she said, referring to the training of pro athletes.

That facility has the appearance of being high-end. Memberships for the public cost $100 a month.

"For those that can afford it, I'm sure it's wonderful," she said.

She encouraged the management not to be shy about engaging the chambers of commerce and the Economic Development Council, especially if it wants to be a resource to student athletes. "These are the organizations that know what's going on in the community," she said.

Oh Hey!
7,177 Posts
I would rather like to see something built a little ways off of Tampa. Pasco would be a great area, we have lots of land on SR 54 and traffic wouldn't be a problem at all.

1,295 Posts
No offense to Pasco County, but the only way this team is going to survive is if its in Tampa. The Manatee Convention Center in Palmetto had an ABA(or something similar) team there for several years that struggled mightly with poor attendence. Also building an entirely new arena for a semi-pro basketball team would be a big waste of money considering their likely to draw less than 1,000 per game. One day Pasco will get its break too.

289 Posts
I’d say by 2015 Pasco County will start to get more of its share when it comes to the Tampa Bay area, as its population starts reaching well past half a million...the census now projects that county to have close to 800-900k(300k more than they had thought in 1990) by 2025. Of course, Pasco does not have nor does it seem like it will ever have a large urban city core....None of its current municipalities can grow and none of them are barely even over 10k while the county is now approaching 500k. With no incorporation of a city in sight, and this area tending to be anti-incorporation, I see the county being nothing more than a large urban(think US19 copycats)/suburban bedroom community for a while. Pasco is getting its first overpass due to growth that’s not an interstate though….SR 54 and SR 41 is getting underway soon.

Now an IKEA going in with the Jacobs Group and Cross Creek Town Center, I could see that turning into some kind of urban core known as Wesley Chapel...hell, it could happen. And no, I'm not saying Land O' Lakes because growing money+power=name of that mess....and it seems like Wesley Chapel is starting to get more of a reputation in the community than Land O' Lakes has made for itself since its much longer existence(most of it bad). I just see the new money in the county with homes reaching that of the rest of the Tampa Bay and growing at a rate of 30k+ a year, people will choose the less known Wesley Chapel to start a new rep for the community in the Tampa Bay and Florida area, plus its not named after butter and finally doesn't have Lake in it.
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