It will come as little surprise to find Urawa Red Diamonds once again topping the attendance figures in J.League Division 1. An average crowd of 36,634 attended matches at the Saitama Stadium, and a 2012 season record 51,879 made their way to Midori-ku, the only time the 50,000 mark had been breached, buoyed in no small part by the final league match being played out against the backdrop of an AFC Champions League place being at stake against Nagoya Grampus. This was in essence a repeat of the 2011 season, when the J.League’s traditional final day ‘bounce’ combined with a title-deciding fixture against Kashiwa Reysol to bring in a crowd of 54,441. Despite a truly miserable year, Consadole Sapporo eked out a greater number of visitors to their home matches than both Omiya Ardija and Sagan Tosu, though it is notable that the latter’s first season in the top-flight of Japanese professional football drew a club record average to both the Best Amenity and Saga Stadiums.
Despite a title-winning season, Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s ability to fill just 35% of the 50,000 capacity, multi-purpose Big Arch perhaps represents the clearest case as to why a smaller, purpose-built football stadium makes sense from supporter, atmosphere and depending upon how Sanfrecce generates revenue from their current home, financial perspectives. Over 280,000 signatures have now been collected by Sanfrecce with a view to accomplishing this goal. 39% of teams struggled to regularly exceed stadium utilisation rates on matchdays, with only Vegalta Sendai coming close to attaining what can be described as sell-out crowds. This is a seemingly remarkable figure given its nearest Division 1 club, Albirex Niigata, lies a minimum three hour drive away, and Kanto-based opposition supporters can require a journey of 3.5 hours or longer on public transport to reach Vegalta’s home arena. Vegalta’s continuing preference for playing matches at the Yurtec Stadium, rather than the isolated, little-used and multi-purpose Miyagi Stadium, is clearly the appropriate choice.
Perhaps the most contentious part of this analysis lies in calculating attraction rates in the respective local community. Population data was taken from the most recently available census figures for the communities the clubs themselves claim to represent, and calculations made as to what percentage of that community was represented in spectator figures. Kashima Antlers, a club whose J.League licence was granted despite failing to meet minimum population requirements, continues to show strongly that it is at the heart of the community with an average attendance of nearly one-quarter of its registered population. Division 1 newcomers Sagan Tosu, in a city whose population exceeds Kashima’s by just 1,851, also fares favourably in this area, seeing 17.6% of its inhabitants regularly turning out to support its local team.
The oft-touted assertion that Shimizu S-Pulse are better supported than their Shizuoka rivals in this context is unsupportable. Shizuoka City’s local population base of 723,317 is significantly larger than Iwata’s 166,963, and the respective average gate figures mean that Jubilo garner an average audience share of 7.9% of its population, nearly four times larger than that of S-Pulse’s 2.1%. However, it is in the cities with populations in excess of 1.9 million that the worst performers in this area are to be found, Nagoya Grampus, Consadole Sapporo, Yokohama F-Marinos, Cerezo Osaka and FC Tokyo the bottom five in the league at attracting local supporters through the gates.
With the exception of a small number of clubs, there is some good news to be had in terms of year-on-year audiences. Firstly, J.League attendances have rebounded somewhat from 2011, showing an 11.2% increase after spectator numbers in 2011 were depressed following the devastating Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Sanfrecce Hiroshima’s dramatic 34.2% year-on-year rise in support owes a great deal to their success this season, their highest crowd of the year watching as they defeated Cerezo Osaka 4-1 and with it claimed the championship, but equally importantly they sat atop the league table for sixteen of the thirty-four matchdays and from Matchday Five were never lower than fourth position, helping to drive interest in their matches. Overall, eleven of the fifteen clubs to have participated in the 2011 and 2012 campaigns saw their spectator numbers climb, Jubilo Iwata’s increase from 11,796 to 13,222 almost precisely mirroring the average overall percentage change across the league. Of the four whose average gates declined, one was relegated and a further one only escaped the drop on the final day of the season, while Kashima’s reduction in attendance can in part be explained by a relatively poor season, but also by issues arising from last year’s earthquake.
Nonetheless, Urawa’s attendances are largely outliers in terms of the J.League, and particularly given the sample sizes can have an outsize effect on the mean. To mitigate against what can in simple terms be called the ‘Urawa effect’ the median was utilised, and the results paint a rather different picture in terms of audience share increase. This chart shows that, while attendances have still risen, it is only 5.2%, less than half the 11.2% increase above.
Finally, and irrespective of the measure used, the data shows that J.League Division 1 audiences have not fully recovered to 2010 levels, and the 2013 season will provide greater evidence as to whether the trend showing a long-term decline in spectator numbers continues, or whether the slump has finally been halted.