Football, or soccer as my American friends call it, is the world’s most popular sport. The recent World Cup Final in Brazil drew in excess of 1 billion television viewers worldwide. In terms of global exposure the British game, in particular the English Premier League, has been leading the charge, With worldwide TV revenue, and a recently signed TV deal worth more than 3 billion pounds, the English Premier League is definitely the world’s top league financially, if not in terms of actual footballing quality.
Ask most football fans in Japan “What team do you support?” and you’ll hear a multitude of responses, but mostly they will say “Manchester United!”, “Liverpool”, “Arsenal” and so on. However, go outside of the EPL, and the picture is certainly not so rosy. In the English lower leagues, several clubs are facing extreme financial hardship. Once proud clubs, like Portsmouth, Peterborough and several others, have faced financial oblivion.
In Scotland, the Premier League can’t even attract a sponsor, whilst Rangers, the second largest team in the country in terms of fan base, went out of existence altogether, with debts running into the tens of millions.
Compare this to Japan, where, despite having a much smaller league, limited fan base, and extremely limited international commercial potential, the J League continues to thrive and the national team continues to reap rewards. Japan has qualified for every World Cup since they made their debut in France in 1998. Conversely, Scotland has not qualified for any major tournament since 1998. England remains a consistent qualifier, but seldom looks like a serious contender.
So, what can Scotland and the English lower leagues learn from Japan? I believe, there’s quite a lot we can learn. Here’s 8 ways the J-League can save British football.
The Customer is King.
This is a common phrase used in Japan’s retail industries. What the customer wants, the customer gets. This also applies to the way J-League games are staged. Prior to the debut of the J-League in 1993, extensive research and surveys were carried out amongst Japanese football fans. Chief amongst the demands of fans were: clean, safe and all-seated stadia, family sections and easy accessible facilities for families and young children, readily available and fairly priced food and beverages for supporters. In all these areas the J-League excels.
From the moment you set foot in the stadium to the moment you leave at the end of the game, you are truly made to feel like a guest. Seating is spacious, comfortable and on occasion, heated from beneath. There is a wide selection of food shops available within the stadium. Whether you want a hot dog and hamburger, or more traditional Japanese fare, it’s all here, and it’s reasonably priced. There are also plenty of outlets for buying those all-important club scarves and replica jerseys that no self-respecting fan should be seen without. Again, prices are reasonable.
Compare this to the UK, where fans frequently feel fleeced as they are hoarded into cramped, cold and often broken seats, with little if any protection from the elements. And let’s not even talk about the food. Last time I took in a game back home, the only thing colder than the chill wind swirling around the stadium was the centre of the over-priced, lukewarm steak pie I bought from the food stall.
Another area where British fans often feel gouged is in terms of ticket pricing and once again Japan shows the way forward in this regard. The most expensive ticket for a J-League game I have seen was around 5,000 yen, which is the high end of the scale for the J-League. Most fans don’t pay more than 2000 ~ 3000 yen. If they buy a season ticket, the price can go as low as 1000 yen per game.
British fans don’t mind paying around 10,000 yen to see the likes of Manchester United v Liverpool, but is it really acceptable to charge a similar amount to watch clubs like Wigan and Southampton?
Let Fans Enjoy a Beer at the Game
For most of my American friends, no trip to see the baseball or NFL game is complete without a cold beer to accompany the action. The J-League goes one better than this. Not only is beer freely available throughout the game, but you can actually order a beer without even having to leave your seat. Smiling staff circulate throughout the crowd during the game serving freshly poured pints of beer direct from the large kegs strapped to their back. In Scotland, drinking alcohol during football games has been banned since drunken fans rioted at the Scottish Cup Final in 1980.
Zero Tolerance of Bad Fan Behavior.
Japanese people are known throughout the world for their courtesy and kindness. However, football, being the passionate sport that it is, can, at times, bring out the worst in people. Earlier this year fans of the Saitama-based club Urawa Reds made global headlines for all the wrong reasons. During a J-League match, they unfurled a banner reading “Japanese Only”.
This clear act of incitement to racial hatred was met with a swift and robust response from the Japan Football Association. The JFA heavily fined and censured Urawa Reds and ordered them to play a future game behind closed doors, costly the club tens of millions of yen in lost ticket sales and match day revenue. However, in the UK frequent racist and sectarian behavior from fans of clubs such as Chelsea, Rangers and some others not only goes unpunished but at times the clubs and media have actively encouraged it. Urawa’s single offence has not been repeated, such was the severity of their punishment.
Develop Your Own Talent Instead of Expensive Foreign Imports.
As I said earlier, the English Premier League is one of the world’s most successful leagues. But how many of its star players are actually English?Not that many.
When the J-League started out in the early 90s, at first it was all about the expensive foreign talent. Fading European and South American stars like Gary Lineker, Pierre Litbarski and Zico all came east in pursuit of one final big payday. Very quickly however, the J-League realised that such a model would prove ruinous to the Japan national team’s future ambitions.
As such a rule was implemented whereby any one team in the J-League could only have a maximum of 6 registered non-Japanese players in their squad. As I said earlier, from 1998 onwards Japan has consistently qualified for the World Cup and has now superseded bitter rivals South Korea as the footballing force in Asia. Along the way, the J-League has produced world class stars such as Hidetoshi Nakata, Shunsuke Nakamura and now the likes of Keisuke Honda and Shinji Kagawa. These are players with the quality to walk into any team in the world.
Keep the League Small and Competitive.
Despite having a population roughly double that of the UK, Japan has far fewer professional football teams. An 18 team top division is supplemented by a 22 team second tier. In 2014 a third tier, composed of 13 mostly semi-professional clubs was also launched. Hence the entirety of Japan is serviced by a total of 53 professional clubs.
The 4 tiers of the English League currently comprise 92 clubs, with a further 48 clubs coming from Scotland, though around half of Scotland’s clubs are currently semi-professional. Clearly both England and Scotland have far too many clubs for such relatively small countries. Despite the vast number of clubs however, the huge financial imbalances within British football mean that, realistically, there are only around 3 or 4 teams in England who can seriously compete for the Premier League Championship.
This is better than Scotland though, where since the death of Rangers in 2012 only one team, Celtic is capable of winning the championship. Conversely, the more level financial playing field of The J-League produces season after season of high-drama and excitement. The thrilling climax to this year’s Championship saw Gamba Osaka, my local team, claim their first J1 title in 9 years. This achievement is made all the more remarkable when you consider that this was their first season back in the top flight since being relegated to J2 three years ago.
Throughout the history of the J-League a variety of clubs, from all across Japan have tasted success. Compare this to the UK, where the English and Scottish championship trophies almost never travel outside Manchester or London and Glasgow respectively.
The UK, as we all know, doesn’t have the most pleasant of climates, especially in winter. For a former sports reporter such as myself, there really is nothing worse than having to sit in a freezing cold, half-empty stadium in December trying to see through your condensation-clouded glasses to watch a turgid and uninspiring game of football.
To avoid this problem, thankfully the J-League have applied some common sense. The Japanese football season runs from March until November, with a break during summer time, when it is simply too hot to play outside. The UK, and in particular Scotland, would do well to consider adopting a similar timeline. Both crowd numbers and the quality of football would improve.
Inspire the Next Generation
Finally, and I think most importantly, Japan does a tremendous job of encouraging the youth of today to become the fans of tomorrow. All across the J-League clubs get involved in various community outreach projects to bring in new fans. British clubs are often accused of complacency and sometimes even treating their fans with contempt. Not so in Japan, where baseball remains the number one sport, and other emerging sports such as rugby provide an intense competition for fans, the J-League clubs for the most part do a tremendous job of reaching out to young fans. And long may it continue.