‘J.League’ Spells Success : Soccer Fast to Gain Business and Fan Appeal in Japan
The suburban Tokyo stadium was packed with fans of the Urawa Red Diamonds professional soccer team. Some wore the hometown red. Others strung up a red-on-black banner marked with a white skull and crossbones and a message to the visiting Yokohama Marinos: “Welcome to RED HELL.”
Each time the Red Diamonds attacked or scored a goal, the stadium erupted into a cheering, screaming frenzy.
Long an obscure sport here--with an even lower profile than in the United States--soccer has exploded on the national scene in an extraordinary wave of popularity, challenging the traditional national obsessions of sumo wrestling and baseball.
Now in the middle of its second season, the 12-team, Japan Professional Football League--known as the “J.League"--is also a remarkable financial success for many individual players and their teams’ corporate sponsors.
Games are sold out long in advance. And flamboyant foreign and domestic soccer stars--having surpassed baseball stars--are ubiquitous in television, print and billboard advertisements for everything from sausages to long-distance telephone services.
Products licensed to carry J.League emblems range from windbreakers and accessories to Kodak film that comes with attached glossy souvenir photos of soccer stars.
Annual sales of items for which the league draws royalty payments are running at $1.5 billion. The total J.League-related market is boosted another $600 million by television broadcast fees, payments for the advertising in which players or logos appear, corporate sponsorships, food and beverages sold at games, ticket sales and other activities. All this is happening even though most of the league’s stadiums can accommodate no more than 15,000 fans.
“The secret to the popularity of the J.League is merchandising,” said Kazuki Sasaki, the J.League’s public affairs manager. “We decided to copy the American model of sports business.”
Promotion has been brilliant. But success came because the sport hit a responsive chord in younger Japanese attracted to its speed and freedom, which contrasts sharply with the stoic discipline of Japanese baseball and the quasi-religious rites of sumo wrestling. Soccer’s emergence as a major national sport reflects the changing values of a generation that knows only affluence and wants something beyond hard work. The sport in turn seems capable of reinforcing new visions of how life should be lived.
The free spirit of Japanese soccer is symbolized by players like Kazuyoshi Miura of the Verdy Kawasaki team, a handsome star who after scoring displays his joy by performing what has become known as the “Kazu dance"--a comical arm-waving, prancing routine that fans love.
“Baseball players are the more serious type,” commented Takuya Jinno, a player for the Yokohama Marinos. “There are lots of interesting soccer players. I guess it’s because there’s more freedom in soccer.”
Among the most wildly popular players is Alcindo Sartori, 26, a Brazilian superstar who displays a luxurious cascade of shoulder-length hair, surrounding a prominent bald spot on the top of his head. He is a flashy player who never hides his emotions, and Japanese fans affectionately have nicknamed him “Kappa,” after bald-domed river spirits of Japanese mythology.
Japan’s top two wig makers realized almost simultaneously that a long-haired real-life kappa sports star could be an advertising treasure. Aderance Co. beat out its rival Art Nature in a bidding war for his services, snagging him with a reported $300,000 contract. The deal allowed him to doff the wig for games, maintaining his popular bald-pated image for sports fans.
“Baseball inherits long Japanese traditions like waend (harmony) or bushido (the samurai way),” said Yutaka Hosokawa, 30, a telephone company employee and soccer fan. “It’s characterized by attitudes of ‘Don’t stick out. Don’t talk. Get results.’ Soccer doesn’t have that, because it was born just last year . . . Alcindo is doing well in games. He’s scoring goals. . . . So they don’t tell him, ‘Live modestly, don’t be so flashy.’ ”
Far from trying to crush individualism and force players into a mold, J.League management seems to exult in the creation of a new sports culture for Japan.
J.League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club, compared baseball to kabuki , a form of Japanese drama with pauses between scenes. Soccer, he noted, is more like rock-and-roll.
Soccer players “can have long hair or pierced ears,” Sasaki said. “Young people look up to them because they are looking for freedom.”
Sasaki added, however, that the audience last year “was more individualistic, like Americans.” He lamented that some spectators at this year’s games have started to follow informal cheerleaders:"When they lift their left hand, they follow. When they lift their right hand, they follow.” He viewed this as a sign that deep-rooted traditions may corrode even the free spirit of soccer.
“Japanese are brought up at school with a stress on unified behavior,” he said. “It’s the idea that ‘If everyone crosses the street together, it’s not dangerous.’ ”
This tendency toward conformity makes it difficult for anyone to judge with certainty whether the popularity of J.League soccer marks just another passing fad or the permanent entrenchment of a major new national sport.
Long-term global ambitions are reflected in the league’s use of the word “football” in its official English name, even though the sport in Japanese is referred to as sakka , derived from American usage. League and government officials have already proclaimed a desire to host the 2002 World Cup finals. The bid itself should help entrench soccer by encouraging construction of bigger stadiums.
J.League coaches and officials are watching now with a mixture of hope and trepidation for signs of how the recent World Cup championships in the United States will affect soccer’s future here.
“The most frightening thing is that everybody has been watching the world’s top competition,” said Hidehiko Shimizu, general manager of the Yokohama Marinos. “When they see fantastic games on television and compare it with J.League, they may feel there’s a big difference. . . . But it’s also the best chance for them to understand what soccer is really about.
The key to long-term popularity, Shimizu said, is to build up the skills of professional players so they will impress increasingly knowledgeable fans.
So far, things have unfolded exactly according to plan--except even better than J.League founders had dared to hope. The mutually supportive interplay between product sales and the game itself, the emphasis on youthful freedom, the star quality of the players, the low-profile role of corporate owners, the stoking of local community pride--all this was calculated.
“Young people are the ones who create new trends, so we made people around 20 our targets, especially young women,” Sasaki said. “If we can get young women interested, and they want to come to the stadium, young men will come with them for sure. The products also target women, with fashionable items.”
For an enterprise infused with business smarts, one of the bravest things J.League officials did was demand that the corporate ownership of teams be downplayed. Some firms resisted, but all eventually went along.
Although the J.League was created from the country’s best amateur teams, which usually had company sponsorship, the league banned identification of the corporate owner in the newly professional teams’ names. Instead, in a bid to arouse spectator enthusiasm, it required that they include the name of the local community. This had the added advantage of drawing local governments into the J.League teams through activities as upgrading stadiums.
Fumikazu Yamaguchi, vice president of Saitama Transport, an Urawa taxi firm, said his company is happy to help sponsor the Red Diamonds.
“We do it because they’re the home team, it’s good for our image, and we want to share in the good luck of a developing sport,” he said. “It differentiates us from other taxi companies with the customers, and it encourages our drivers to be careful not to reject any passengers or get into accidents.”
Times researcher Megumi Shimizu in Tokyo contributed to this story.