From 1965 to 1992 top-level football in Japan was played in the Japan Soccer League (JSL), the precursor to the J.League, but in a format largely distinct to the full-time professional structure the domestic game enjoys, and that to which contemporary observers are accustomed. Beyond the absence of professionalism, teams were owned by corporations under whose name they played and facilities they often used. Hitachi Ltd, Nissan Motors, and Sumitomo Metals became the more familiar Kashiwa Reysol, Yokohama F-Marinos and Kashima Antlers in today’s configuration, though their former patronage and historical imprint is still recognisable in the name of their stadia or sponsor. In the case of Kashima, who spent significantly both on foreign players and in the construction of their clubhouse and training facilities, this patronage continued into the professional game as Sumitomo Metals rather wryly side-stepped one of the J.League’s founding ideals regarding a prohibition on sponsorship, in declaring a payment of ¥2 billion for a discrete company logo on a player’s jersey as advertising expenses.
While formed in 1955, only a few years after the Hitachi and Sumitomo teams first took to the football pitch and two decades earlier than Nissan Motors’ inaugural JSL season, Albirex Niigata could never boast of the support, previous success or name recognition that Reysol, Marinos and Antlers enjoyed upon their immediate entry into the professional ranks. As an independent amateur team playing under the name Niigata Eleven SC *, the lack of a company supporter and patron in particular precluded any realistic hopes of performing at the highest levels of domestic club football prior to the instigation of a professional league. With the formation of the J.League in 1993, and most importantly the creation of a second-tier which would commence in 1999, Albirex capitalised on successive Hokushin’etsu regional league championships, and a runners-up place in the All Japan Regional Football Promotion League Series in 1997, to gain promotion to the Japan Football League for the 1998 campaign. Their growing support and ability to meet professional constraints neatly ensured they could become a founder member of J.League Division 2 as the inaugural season began the following year.
As a prefecture, Niigata bears little relation to football and sporting strongholds across the rest of the nation. As with the former Japan Soccer League, baseball teams in Japan were owned by major corporations and conglomerates, the difference being that those companies still retain part- or full ownership of their baseball interests, and spectator numbers for professional baseball continue to outperform attendances at football matches in certain areas of the country. The enormously popular Hanshin Tigers – owned by the Hanshin Electric Railway – posted an average attendance of 40,256 in 2011, this coming despite their continued failure to win a Japan Series since 1985, while Vissel Kobe and the two Osaka teams combined gathered only 7,500 more over the course of the 2011 campaign. The absence of a professional baseball team in Niigata ensures that Albirex has no sporting operation in the vicinity to compete for its affections and revenues, unlike Avipsa Fukuoka who continue to be the poor relation to The SoftBank Hawks, and Consadole whose already meager attendances look especially paltry compared to the audiences drawn by the Nippon-Ham Fighters, despite the latter’s move to Hokkaido only being completed in 2004.
Niigata’s relative isolation geographically also provides a comparatively favourable location for a team. While ranked 14th in population of the forty-seven prefectures, and with one third of its inhabitants based in the prefectural capital, only four prefectures are larger by area, and ranked 14th in terms of population density accordingly. As a consequence only one other prefecture boasting a J.League Division 1 side can emphasise a greater amount of space per capita, but Hokkaido also has a resident population of than double that of Niigata, nearly two million being inhabitants of Sapporo. Moreover, less than 1% of J.League clubs are located on the Sea of Japan coast, and unlike the sport’s traditional heartlands which flow west from Kanto to Hiroshima, whereas an inhabitant of Tokyo, Osaka, Kobe or Shizuoka could in principle select from a number of teams to which they could travel in ninety minutes or less, football fans from Niigata must content themselves with Albirex alone unless they are comfortable with a one-way excursion of four hours or more to Division 2’s Montedio Yamagata.
The impact of the 2002 FIFA World Cup on both Niigata Prefecture and Albirex was significant, its inhabitants landed with the costs of construction for a new sporting arena while the football team saw the number of its followers increase greatly. The final outlay on Niigata Stadium was $250 million (¥31,000,000,000), with the overwhelming majority of the financial burden laid across the 2.5 million residents, the typical outlay being ¥50,000 per four-person household. Meanwhile, at a time when Albirex were still participating in J.League Division 2, average attendances rose from a little over 18,000 at the Niigata City Athletic Stadium, their sole home until 2002, to what was an extraordinary 29,000 as they began to split games between the Niigata Stadium ** and their former ground.
Albi have been described as one of the best-supported clubs in Japan. This was and continues to be true relative to its competitors across the J.League, 2010’s average in excess of 30,000 more than 65% higher than the competition average that year. However, more worryingly Albirex have shed more supporters than any other Division 1 club with a sustained existence in the top-flight in both percentage and absolute terms. In a precipitous decline from the highs of 2005 and its second season in the top-flight to the present day, 42% – close to a staggering 17,000 fans – no longer regularly visit the Tohoku Denryoku Big Swan Stadium. In turn, recent managerial appointee Masaaki Yanagishita has had his team take the field to a barely half-full stadium, a far cry from the days when Yoshiharu Sorimachi and to a certain degree his successor Jun Suzuki could count on close to capacity crowds urging their players on. Perhaps the most illuminating aspect of the falling attendances at the Big Swan is that even relative success failed to temporarily stem a tide of former supporters from absenting themselves. Despite the 2006 campaign seeing the club’s highest ever league placing, ending the season in sixth position, supporter numbers fell by over 3%, and their two further top-ten finishes to date in 2009 and 2010 were met with corresponding declines of a further 3% and 9% respectively. What should be most disconcerting of all for Albirex executives is that even as late as 2010, by this stage of the season, with eight of their seventeen home matches played, Albirex would ordinarily have drawn a crowd of over 30,000 at lease five times, but the 2012 season has seen this figure recorded on just one occasion. As an organisation, they are set to record the lowest spectactor figures since they turned professional and at the mid-way point of the 2012 season, Albi occupy sixteenth place. Should performances continue to the same standard, they will meet with relegation come November, an outcome which will inevitably depress attendance further and bring with it the commensurate further drop in valuable gate revenue.
There are several reasons for this decline, but one critical factor is the hangover from the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and it is likely exacerbated by Albirex Niigata in essence being a “post-2002” football club, not having established itself in the higher echelon of Japanese football prior to the tournament taking place. It is possible to argue that its near sixty-year history allows it to claim deeply embedded roots in the community, and the club’s response to the 2004 Chuetsu Earthquake, which resulted in 39 fatalities and injured several thousand more together with large-scale destruction and damage to homes, business and infrastructure, helped cement their ties to the prefecture. Nonetheless, Albi were one of only five of the ten clubs to have either built new stadia or expanded existing facilities as host venues for the 2002 World Cup to see a statistically significant increase in attendance after the 2002 competition had passed, and benefitted heavily from hosting the tournament in the immediate years following. Moreover, Albirex prospered to a greater degree from this “trigger” than all but one of those five teams, the number of people in the stands rising by 56% in the months following England’s 3-0 defeat of Denmark in the last match of the tournament to be played at the stadium.
These short-term gains accumulated from a large, single, hallmark event, however, likely provided spectators whose awareness of football and perhaps attraction to Albirex had increased, but who had not developed the necessary attachment or allegiance to the football club to provide an enduring return. While pre-2002 Albirex supporters had remained loyal, attending matches during their ascent to J.League Division 2 from the Japan Football League, and celebrating their subsequent promotion into Division 1, its newer supporters were less emotionally and financially invested in their club, and not holding – or indeed enjoying – a psychological connection and commitment to their team’s fortunes. A lack of silverware, failure to reach the finals of either the Emperor’s or J.League cups, and am inability to mount a challenge for the league title ensured that the interest of these relatively “fair-weather” spectators at Albirex Niigata were able to drift away from the terraces more easily than would have been the case for the supporters who regularly packed out the Niigata City Athletic Stadium. As a consequence of these supporters ebbing away, collapsing gate revenue and a no-longer steady income stream impedes the already limited ability of the club to attract players to one of the lesser-known and less-developed regions of the country over its commercial and industrial centres. Having previously seen the likes of former stars Marcio Richardes and Edmilson move to Urawa Red Diamonds at a time the club enjoyed great popularity, there now becomes great pressure on a youth system to produce talent, an on-going failure for an organisation which can count only veteran midfielder Isao Homma and Atomu Tanaka as the players to have progressed through the ranks and who command a regular starting position.
This lesson of “If you build it, they won’t necessarily come” is one which sadly continues to go unheeded by some within the J.League, and will be described in the coming days as I discuss Gamba Osaka’s ongoing but serially postponed attempts to construct its “Field of Smile”. Part 4, however, will cover those teams who have sensibly attempted to grow their support base organically, including one whose rejection of entreaties and inducements to move to a much larger stadium in favour of their own equally modern, but smaller, more atmospheric and much-loved arena could soon be richly rewarded.
* The name of Niigata Eleven SC changed to Albireo Niigata in 1995, and became Albirex in 1997
** In 2007, naming rights for the ground were sold to the Tohoku Electric Power Company, and it is now known as the Tohoku Denryoku Big Swan Stadium