WORLD CUP '94 / 40 DAYS AND COUNTING : Getting a Kick Start : Japan Is Showing the United States How It's Done With the Success of Soccer's J-League

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here's a quick question to test your knowledge of international sports:

How many applied for tickets to the opening match of the inaugural season in Japan's professional soccer league--800? 8,000? 800,000?

The third figure is correct.

Here's a quick question to test your knowledge of American sports:

How many will apply for tickets to the opening match of the inaugural season of Major League Soccer, the United States' latest effort to launch a professional soccer league--800? 8,000?

The first figure is as likely to be correct as the latter.

The J-League, as Japan's newest sports venture is called, will be one year old next Sunday. Major League Soccer is expected to make its debut one year from now.

But, in the opinion of many observers, rather than being separated by only a couple of years, the two leagues already are light years apart.

Soccer has conquered Japan, or at least a good portion of it, in only 12 months. The sport is now the hottest ticket in town, every bit as popular as baseball or sumo wrestling. Companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and others are pouring tens of millions of dollars into soccer. The media is giving it extensive coverage.

How was all this accomplished and can the same formula be followed by Major League Soccer? Probably not.

"They've done a wonderful job, but it's not something that we can package easily and bring back to the United States," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director/secretary general of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

The main obstacle, it appears, is cultural. What the Japanese government, industry and fans are willing to accept, the American government, industry and people are not. It's as simple as that.

Steinbrecher, along with Alan Rothenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of World Cup USA 1994 and president of the USSF, traveled to Japan to study the J-League and see what lessons could be applied on this side of the Pacific.

What they learned is that it won't be that easy. One reason is contained in this quote from Sauburo Kawabuchi, chairman of the J-League:

"We expect to lose $250 million in the first five years," he said without so much as blinking an eye.

In difficult economic times, that would seem a staggering statement to make, but the Japanese take a different view of such things. Their goals are much different than quick profits.

"The Japanese are very long-term thinkers," Steinbrecher said. "All this (investment in professional soccer) is part of an integrated plan to stage the World Cup in 2002, when they can showcase Japan."

So, unlike the United States, which was awarded this summer's World Cup on condition--or at least in the sincere belief--that a professional league would be established, Japan is going about it in a more logical manner. It has established a professional league in the hope of being awarded the World Cup.

After months, indeed years, of planning and promotion, the J-League was launched on May 15, 1993.

It was a spectacular opening night. The Olympic Stadium in Tokyo was packed to the rafters. Celebrities were everywhere. Politicians rubbed elbows with entertainers and sports figures, including Pele and, in a diplomatic bow to baseball, Sadaharu Oh, Japan's greatest baseball player.

A spectacular laser, fireworks and music show preceded the first match, between Yokohama Marinos and Yomiuri Nippon. The entire event was televised live nationwide. It was all a huge success.

Seven months later, the same could be said for the entire season. One million fans had passed through the turnstiles within the first month. Sold-out stadiums were commonplace. Soccer quickly earned its place alongside baseball in terms of attendance and prime-time television coverage. It was more than a novelty, it was an escape from conformity. It was bright, it was colorful, it was lively.

Whereas baseball obeyed the do-what-the-coach-tells-you ethic of an earlier era, soccer allowed and indeed encouraged freedom of expression, both in appearance and in the game itself. By season's end, both Kawabuchi and the media were hailing the J-League's success.

"It was a great success," Kawabuchi said. "Everything turned out for the best. I think the Japanese have understood for the first time that soccer is an aggressive, speedy and colorful sport."

Japan's best-selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, made it official in an editorial.

"The league has exceeded all expectations," the newspaper said. "There were full houses everywhere. Its popularity was due to a feeling that the game was new and exciting, to attacking teams, strong foreign players and fast play.

"Now, sports typical of Japan are not just sumo and baseball. We can say that soccer has taken root in the national culture."

But how?

Steinbrecher believes it was done by targeting a specific audience and by being willing, with some government prodding, to invest millions in making it a commercially viable venture.

"I think they've hit a bonanza," he said. "The advertising, the marketing, is absolutely a stroke of genius. The thing that struck me first is that the marketing of the league itself is very youth oriented. The J-League is associated with vibrancy and youth and excitement.

"It's really young, whereas the traditional sport, baseball, caters to the older crowd. This is something that we should learn from--that in our marketing we gear things toward the lower end of the age spectrum.

"The other thing is that the structure of the J-League, in my opinion, certainly will not work in the United States. They (in Japan) were able to get an infusion of capital very early and have some guarantees (of success) because of that.

"We can't expect our government (local, state or federal) to come and say to corporate sponsors, 'Listen, we want you to come in and sponsor this team for, say, $5 million a year.' It doesn't work that way. We have to structure the finances of the league and the league itself a little bit differently."

Local government did play a large part in helping the J-League get off the ground.

In the town of Kashima, for example, civic leaders spent $75 million in building a 15,000-seat stadium and all the attendant facilities for its club, the Kashima Antlers.

Most of the 10 teams that started the league--increased to 12 this season--play in small stadiums of that size. But each one of them has plans to either expand or build huge new stadiums in the hope that if Japan is awarded the 2002 World Cup, their city will be one of the venues.

It's yet another example of the long-term outlook.

So, too, is the emphasis on developing Japanese stars. Fewer than a third of the players in the league are foreign. Each team is limited to signing five foreigners and can play only three at a time.

The Japanese are not making the same errors that scuttled the ill-fated North American Soccer League, the most recent attempt to sell soccer to the American public.

"That league was geared to profit and in the end there was no active promotion or nurturing of promising American players," Kawabuchi said. "We shall not be making the same mistake. The J-League has a majority of good, home-grown Japanse players who have moved up from high school and semi-professional leagues."

Still, J-League teams did scour Europe and South America in search of stars to bring in the fans. Top names such as England's Gary Lineker, Brazil's Zico and Argentina's Ramon Diaz were among the big attractions in the first season and also among the most highly paid.

Lineker, for instance, was signed by Nagoya Grampus Eight for $4.5 million for three years. Diaz pocketed $1.8 million for his two years with the Yokohama Marinos, and Zico, who took the Kashima Antlers all the way to the first league championship game, got a three-year, $1.5-million contract even though he was 40 when he signed.

But the Japanese players are not hurting. Japan national team striker Kazuyoshi Miura earned $900,000 last season from Kawasaki Verdy and that figure was increased to $2 million this season. Kawasaki is also making plans for a state-of-the-art, 100,000-seat stadium for World Cup 2002.

It is small wonder, then, that viewed with such examples, American soccer officials and fans become a little despondent. Politicians in the United States are, understandably, not about to commit tax dollars to a sport, especially one such as soccer. Private enterprise will not do anything to promote the game unless it can guarantee its shareholders a quick profit. And the media are not going to pay serious attention to soccer until soccer shows that it is worth the coverage.

There, in a nutshell, are three reasons why the Major Soccer League is in trouble even before the first ball is kicked. Steinbrecher provides another:

"I think Major League Soccer will be up and running in some form or other by 1995," he said. "Will we have the initial success of the J-League? I doubt it.

"The reason I say that is that we have a much more complex, convoluted sports-entertainment industry in the United States than they do in Japan. It's just far more competitive.

"They do not have all these entrenched brands that we do, the NFL, the NBA, major league baseball, NASCAR, college basketball, college football. We have a much, much more difficult market to penetrate."

Perhaps the answer lies in letting the Japanese do it. Perhaps the 12 J-League teams would like to establish a farm system in the United States. After all, American baseball made the transition into Japanese culture. What is to stop Japanese soccer making the transition into American culture?

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