Gates in the J.League – a cause for concern? (Part 2)

Any discussion of spectator attendance and community participation in the J.League is made all the more instructive by reference to Kashima Antler’s formative years, and in particular how a district of then just 45,000 people could satisfy the J.League’s entry criteria, which included a stadium of a minimum 15,000 capacity. Full attendance at league matches was, in essence, not seen viable for any cities of less than 100,000 residents, and Kashima’s population did not even meet the Japanese government’s formal benchmark to be designated as a town at that time, making any application to become an inaugural J.League member highly unlikely to succeed.

Until the early 1960s an economic backwater, Kashima had been almost wholly reliant on agriculture and the fishing industry for revenue, as major economic growth across swathes of the country largely by-passed what was little more than a rural district located north-east of Tokyo. Its sleepy status would be changed forever with its designation as a special industrial zone, however, Sumitomo Steel and Asahi Glass among a number of major companies who located to the area within a decade.

Kashima Soccer Stadium (Pre-Expansion)

Like many Japanese football teams in existence prior to the J.League’s formation, Kashima were a company club, and were formed in 1947 under the ownership of a then more distant Sumitomo Steel. The ownership’s support for Kashima’s application for J.League status and transformation into a full-time professional football club proved critical. Acting as de facto cheerleaders for the proposal, Sumitomo management corralled local politicians, bureaucrats and other business leaders in the community into supporting the bid, the 15,000-seater stadium subsequently built with significant support from an Ibaraki Prefectural government which contributed approximately 80% of the construction costs for a total sum of around ¥10 million, and resulting in an arena in which there was one seat for every three inhabitants. Unlike many of their competitors who divide their home matches between as many as four grounds, this modern, purpose-built football facility has been the Antlers’ only home since 1993, the Kashima Soccer Stadium duly expanded in time to become a 2002 FIFA World Cup host venue and now accommodates just shy of 41,000.

The 12 November 2005 fixture between Kashima Antlers and FC Tokyo drew a crowd of 19,521, higher than average that season

This expansion, however, came at a cost not for temporary World Cup audiences or even necessarily for the local community, the venue being one of only two of the ten stadia used for the tournament to break even in its running costs that year, while the cost per capita of both construction and expansion for the prefectural population came in at a very economical ¥7,890 compared to nearly three times that for the Sapporo Dome, but for Kashima Antlers fans the difference in match day experience was stark. The size of both the resident population and the local catchment area for Kashima, and the preponderance of football teams in the Kanto region, in particular five teams which practically surround the city between Saitama and Utsunomiya, rendered selling-out a ground in its original guise of 15,000 seats very difficult. A venue now capable of holding audiences 2.73 times larger than originally constructed, in a city to which only 15,000 have been added to its permanent population – a factor of just 1.3 – ensures that Antlers players will almost certainly never be treated to the sight and sound of their fans filling all four stands, visiting supporters excepted. A balance of 22,000 seats have gone unsold in each match in the past decade, higher than every single average attendance over the course of a season in that same period.

A visual representation of how full the expanded Kashima Soccer Stadium has been by percentage since 2002. The figures confirm the average number of seats left empty per match each season.

Nonetheless, one could deem both Kashima’s haul of trophies – recently comprising three consecutive championships between 2007 and 2009 including a league and Emperor’s Cup double in the first year of that run – and average attendance figures of 18,915 between 2002 and 2011 as an extraordinary success. Indeed, for a club to draw a regular audience of what is roughly one-quarter of its population on average, if we assume an away audience of between 1,500 – 3,000, is little short of miraculous, especially when factoring in the estimated economic impact to the Kashima area of ¥3,500,000,000 per year since 1997, that the Antlers were deemed a factor in stemming outward migration among the city’s young and that the city became a model for regional town planning across Japan.

Sadly, some Antlers fans – approximately a sixth of their support in the past decade – only turn up to the Kashima Soccer Stadium in anticipation of the team meeting with domestic glory. When a season appears unlikely to result in any success, a not insignificant proportion stays away. For example, in 2003, despite finishing fifth in the overall combined standings, Antlers stood on the brink of qualifying for the Suntory Championship by virtue of the Apertura/Clausura structure of the competition, finishing fourth in the second stage but just a single point behind eventual Clausura winners Yokohama F-Marinos. This near-miss contributed to a campaign in which they exceeded an average of 21,000 spectators on one of only three occasions since 2002. However, 2004 saw attendance at the Kashima Soccer Stadium fall by 17% as they were finished twelve and thirteen points behind stage winners Marinos and Urawa Red Diamonds respectively, and this percentage drop was repeated precisely in 2006 when they ended their campaign fourteen points back from the Urawa giants. Unsurprisingly, this number only started to rise again in 2007 when success returned to Kashima, and in 2012, with the team currently lying in thirteenth place and thirteen points short of leaders Vegalta Sendai at the half-way stage, it will come as little shock if once again average attendance falls below 16,000. *

The large variation in Antlers gates over the course of a decade visually demonstrates the fickle nature of some Kashima supporters, together with a predicted downward trend for future average gates

These fickle supporters, subject to mockery both good-natured and bad as “fair-weather” fans, not only hamper a football club’s ability to accurately project year-on-year gate revenues, but they also signify how well-embedded a football club is in its community, how deep its roots are as a local organisation, and how it comes to be perceived by its supporters. Unless the club manages to cause catastrophic, long-lasting damage to its reputation and relationship with its public, their most passionate fans will almost without exception continue to pass through the turnstiles. This behaviour and loyalty for a sporting institution is demonstrated through the Psychological Continuum Model (PCM), a four stage model which determines the level of involvement a consumer has with a team, and their progression through a number of deeper connection stages. To illustrate how the PCM works in practice, it can be described in simple terms as follows:

Stage Outcome
Awareness I know of Sanfrecce Hiroshima **
Attraction I like Sanfrecce Hiroshima ***
Attachment I support Sanfrecce Hiroshima
Allegiance I live for Sanfrecce Hiroshima

The further along that scale a person following a team resides, it follows the greater their emotional and financial investment in their team will be, and how much more symbolic and important the institution becomes in that person’s life. From a club accountant’s perspective and a team’s ongoing financial viability, ideally the overwhelming majority of its supporters will have formed a bond with their side equal to the allegiance stage, finding meaning in the club and its performance, investing significantly in emotional and financial terms, and being resistant to outside influence including the potential lure of other teams.

The question then becomes, what does this mean for Kashima Antlers? Provided the organisation’s commercial operation has accounted for this fair-weather element in their year-on-year gate and revenue projections, it is unlikely to impact significantly in their ability to compete, beyond having only roughly 13,000-14,500 fans on whom they can rely for regular receipts, and ironically, this resolute and little growing supporter base provides the best argument as to why the expansion of the Kashima Soccer Stadium was little in their interest in terms of their supporters’ experience.

To assess how attendance figures can impact on a J.League football club’s sustainability, we must instead turn our attention to some of its newer entrants, how falling gates may augur badly for their long-term future, and how this decline calls into question some of the J.League’s bold, well-intentioned, but I believe misguided 100 Year Vision. This and more will follow in Part 3.

* Kashima Antlers’ average attendance figures between 2010 and 2011 slid by 25%. However, the city of Kashima and Ibaraki Prefecture suffered major economic and physical damage, and its people physical and psychological injury, as a result of the 2011 Tohuku Earthquake and Tsunami. This fall in attendance would have been smaller had this most dreadful of disasters not occurred.

** I am aware of Sanfrecce Hiroshima.

*** I like how Sanfrecce Hiroshima play under Hajime Moriyasu.

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