It’s all change in Japanese professional football. As part of a significant rebrand and overhaul of its sponsors, the top two divisions will become the J1 and J2 Leagues, mirroring the third tier introduced in 2013, while Meiji Yasuda becomes title sponsor for all three competitions. Agreements with Calbee and Konami as primary sponsors have come to an end, the latter potentially providing an opening for EA Sports and its FIFA franchise to be granted the J.League’s licence, ending the Winning XI series’ long-standing monopoly. Gamba Osaka’s new arena is scheduled to open in the autumn of 2015, the first stadium with a capacity in excess of 30,000 to open since the co-hosted 2002 FIFA World Cup. With venues for Sanfrecce Hiroshima, Montedio Yamagata, Shimizu S-Pulse, Kyoto Sanga, Giravanz Kitakyushu, V-Varen Nagasaki, FC Ryukyu and AC Nagano Parceiro at various stages of discussion, planning and construction, it may be the prelude to a raft of modern, football-specific stadia in the coming years. Most importantly, after a decade the decidedly European single-stage, double-round robin format has come to an end. Next season, the 50th anniversary of top-flight organised league football in Japan, will see the country’s first division comprise two stages and a championship play-off.
Beyond a single experiment in 1996, the two-stage system was favoured from the J.League’s inception in the upper tier from 1993 until 2004, but the confirmed return to the Apertura – Clausura was met with a significantly negative reaction from supporters, and from both Japanese and a number of resident, influential foreign football writers. Die-hard fans of the league’s constituent clubs were united in their almost unanimous condemnation of the proposals, displaying protest banners inside stadia which provoked league officials to petition broadcasters to focus on on-field action only, and a few even stated that it would lead to the death of football in Japan. Hyperbole aside, there is legitimate criticism to be made of the J.League with regard to the re-introduction of the two-stage format. Engagement and communication with fans at a club and general supporter level were not only lacking, but practically non-existent, although while not excusing the manner in which the proposals were aired and implemented, it does reflect a well-documented paternalistic, one-way approach to corporate communications common in Japan.
Moreover, while its return came not necessarily from a position of panic as has been described elsewhere – league structures were discussed periodically during the course of league business – it was certainly embarrassing that the league was required to amend the proposals as originally drafted. As such, that the league has treated its most vocal supporters with no small degree of complacency in the expectation that they will simply return to its stadia next year, despite their vociferous protests, and that the original execution of the plans was flawed is unacceptable. Particularly given the J.League’s emphasis on community clubs, the onus is very much on the league and its clubs to engage with supporters properly on issues of such significance in the future, and for the J.League to properly recognise the importance of fans as stakeholders, and particularly its most passionate adherents, whose contribution to enduringly superb atmospheres in its grounds should not and cannot be ignored.
Matsumoto Yamaga fans, who will participate in J.League 1 for the first time in 2015, show they will be a welcome addition to the top tier.
Further still, it should be noted that the J.League’s principal arguments for changing the league’s structure, largely based on improving stagnant attendances and halting deteriorating broadcast revenues and ratings while seeking to attract a greater proportion of casual fans to both are, while important, not necessarily the arguments its executives should have been making for the purposes of marketing the change to fans, and to a certain extent may have been overstated. For example, while attendances have been declining since the single stage peak of 2008, the season following a World Cup traditionally sees a bump in average gates, although it is arguable that this would have failed to materialise in 2015 due to the Samurai Blue’s historically poor performance in Brazil. Yet despite Urawa Red Diamonds being forced to play a game behind closed doors as punishment for a racist incident involving its supporters and Albirex’s final round match being switched to a neutral location due to unfavourable weather conditions in Niigata, the league actually saw a small – although perhaps still insignificant – increase in numbers compared to 2013. While it isn’t possible to precisely calculate the psychological and physical effects of the tragic 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami from 2012 onwards, its impact on football attendance shouldn’t go unconsidered, especially in the areas where the effects were most devastating and clubs themselves suffered damage beyond the merely structural. J.League clubs often see their highest gates at the first and last home league matches, particularly if these occur on the opening and closing days of the season. Looking at the matches outside this window for the teams to have participated in the first division since 2005, there was a dramatic and understandable collapse in this “core” attendance in 2011, but which has shown only a mild recovery since.
However, of the ten highest average attendances in J.League seasons to date, seven were achieved during the single stage’s ten year run. Given two of those occurred during the inaugural and second seasons, a time in which global superstars competed in its competitions and where attraction to its arenas went beyond the more traditional football supporter, it may well provide some indication of the popularity of the European format. As such, to a certain degree, the J.League may have been making the right argument but for some of the wrong reasons, and it could instead have couched the arguments in competition terms – that is, its executives and clubs do not want to see the league become a tournament in which it is dominated by individual teams like in some European leagues, and, moreover, that what is a “traditional” league format is neither necessarily traditional nor best merely because it is traditional.
Questions of increasing revenues aside, what we should be asking regarding competition format is this: what exactly are we seeking to measure in league competition? In designing a format, what do we value? After all, there is no individual league championship system which perfectly assesses what constitutes the “best” team, which is a purely qualitative measure. The single-stage, double-round robin format common to a number of, but not all European leagues and recently abandoned in Japan merely demonstrates which team has been the most consistent in accumulating the most points over the course of the season – not the same as “best”. Across Europe, leagues include triple and quadruple round-robin formats and play-offs for the championship title, European places, promotion and relegation (Goossens & Spieksma, 2012), while tie-breakers to decide a champion between sides finishing with the same number of points vary, including one or more of goal difference, goals scored, head to head records, head to head goal difference, head to head goals scored, fair play scales, and still further criteria. In the Premier League, if two or more clubs have the same number of points, goal difference and goals scored, the relevant teams are required to complete one or more play-off matches to decide the league champion. It would be strange that those who would favour a single stage, double round-robin format to decide the winners of a league title would nonetheless be accepting of a knock-out format to decide places for European participation, promotion and relegation, or even ultimately a league champion, for which the financial consequences can be enormous, yet in the negative reaction to the J.League’s changes there was little discussion of the mechanisms by which teams can be promoted to its own top tier, or why the format should, from a philosophical and theoretical perspective, remain the same.
It is perfectly legitimate to believe the team accumulating the most points in a season is the “best”, but it is also perfectly legitimate to believe the team which is the “most entertaining” – again, a qualitative description – is worthy of accumulating more points. It is, after all, only 20 years since the world’s football leagues introduced three points for a victory at FIFA’s behest, following England’s example set in 1981. This was done deliberately for the purposes of making games more “exciting” – that is, to entice teams to produce more attacking football in the pursuit of more victories given the greater number of points on offer, so we should acknowledge that even those countries to which some commentators believe the J.League should defer have been happy to tinker with their own systems in pursuit of greater entertainment. While there is limited – and conflicting – academic evidence as to whether this particular objective was achieved, a study completed by Aylott and Aylott (2007) suggested that three points for a win increased the “excitingness” of senior league football, irrespective of where and when it was introduced, while a further study indicates that it encouraged away teams to play more aggressively (Shepotylo, 2010). What was also noticeable is that the change to three points for a win was viewed suspiciously by both the Football League’s chairmen and the media.
FIFA and IFAB have shown they will also seek to change the rules to make the game more entertaining and to enable more goals to be scored. In 1990 and 2005 they gave greater benefit to attacking teams where the offside law was concerned, in 1992 they outlawed the goalkeeper handling the ball from a pass from one of his or her own players, and in 2000, to speed up play, they mandated that goalkeepers should release the ball within six seconds. There was an even more radical experiment undertaken at FIFA’s 1991 Under-17 World Championship, in which the offside law was only enforced in an area from the goal line to a line drawn across the penalty area (The International Football Association Board, 1991).
UEFA, meanwhile, effectively abandoned the knock-out European Cup for the Champions League due to the continent’s biggest clubs and broadcasters wanting a greater number of guaranteed games and thus greater proceeds (Chadwick & Holt, 2007), and subsequently expanded the competition and increased revenues distributed to participant clubs due to the threat of a breakaway European “Super League”. Beyond this making the game of greater interest to football fans in general, greater spectator and viewer numbers are more attractive to broadcasters and sponsors, which even if not a truth universally acknowledged by supporters, are of great importance in sustaining healthy competitions containing talented players. That J.League sides continue to lose their best young players to foreign sides and leagues with greater riches and talent on offer isn’t a problem that the switch to the two-stage will solve on its own, but with other necessary measures may prolong their stay and development, rather than, for example, largely being restricted to a place on the benches at Standard Liège, FC Basel, BSC Young Boys and Köln in the respective cases of Ono, Kakitani, Kubo and Osako. This is of importance to a nation where new football fans place particular emphasis on the presence of stars as a reason for attendance (Mahony et al, 2002).
In theory one club could take a highly pragmatic, defensive approach, eking out 34 single goal victories gained by a singularly long-ball approach over the course of a season, while another, committed to a very attacking, highly technical philosophy, wins 33 matches by 3 or 4 goal margins but draws its final game. The single-season format wouldn’t demonstrate which was “best”, although many would argue that the latter was the most entertaining and had the most memorable season. The above being highly unlikely, we can look to practical examples. Newcastle United in the 1995-96 and Liverpool FC in the 2006-07 and 2013-14 Premier League seasons were possibly the most entertaining teams in those title battles, but each finished behind teams from Manchester. The best example can be found in Sweden’s 1998 Allsvenskan, in which AIK won the league title, despite netting just 25 times in 26 games, the lowest of any club in that campaign, who won fewer games overall than runners-up Helsingsborgs, who in turn also ended the season as joint top scorers. A single-stage purist may favour AIK’s achievement, but had the league featured a number of similar sides, such dull fare likely wouldn’t have been entertaining or enjoyable to a neutral, never mind broadcasters and sponsors. Perhaps the entertaining team’s “rewards” would come in other tangible and less tangible terms, such as being of greater interest to new supporters, being shown on television more frequently or gaining entry to other competitions, but to a team and its own fans finishing second can mean little. However, what the above demands is that we accept two things: what we may think is traditional – and by traditional that typically means European – and best, is neither necessarily traditional nor best.
While the 2014 J.League season had a highly exciting conclusion, the rest of the campaign was rather mediocre fare. Producing the lowest total number of goals since 2005 and the lowest goals per game average in league history, none of the three sides seeking to claim the trophy on the final day could manufacture a win. Eventual victors Gamba Osaka deliberately engineered a goalless draw in Tokushima against a Vortis team without a single home victory to their name all season, merely helping to underscore what a highly unsatisfactory season this was for the neutral. While some issues this season may have arisen from the technical ability of players currently performing in the J.League or a certain predictability in managerial tactics, the two-stage system should at the very least produce a greater quantity of games with more meaningful outcomes more frequently. Clearly it should be acknowledged that the single season produced a number of memorable climaxes, with 2005 being perhaps the most exciting of all, but equally that system’s defenders should acknowledge that there have been drab campaigns whose failings have been masked by final rounds. It is arguable, therefore, that it is better in principle to hold a tournament in which several teams will be able to stake a claim for play-off positions at different stages of the season, and reduce the number of meaningless games at a season end.
Also apparent is that the J.League’s original structure produced several equally dramatic outcomes. Among a number of examples, although the method by which points were awarded to teams differed, the 1999 season saw Shizuoka rivals Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse battling for first stage supremacy, and culminated in the two sides meeting in the Suntory Championship final. In 2003, more than half of the league’s sixteen clubs were in contention for the second stage title with just three games remaining, ending in the top ten places being separated by only two points and the top three with the same win, draw and loss records.
Highlights of 2003 J.League 1: Second Stage, Round 15. Tatsuhiko Kubo scores a stoppage time winner for F.Marinos to defeat Jubilo Iwata, securing the second stage title in the final round and the Suntory Championship.
Where further criticism is perhaps warranted is the deleterious effect the extension to a domestic calendar may have on the fitness of players. In principle a two-stage system could benefit teams participating in the AFC Champions League, given that it will allow teams in the first stage to maximise squad rotation and focus on success in the group stage. Based on previous squad selections, the AFC’s elite club tournament is one which, whether for relative lack of prestige, financial reasons or both, certain J.League sides in recent seasons appear to have taken less seriously than Japan’s domestic competitions, and this could allow for renewed ambition on the continent. Domestically, Gamba Osaka have become the second professional side after Kashima Antlers and the fourth overall to complete the domestic treble. Gamba’s 2014 schedule by season end comprised 34 J.League, 11 Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, and 6 Emperor’s Cup games, a total of 51 matches. To repeat that feat in 2015, Gamba’s mandatory participation including the six AFC Champions League group games could be 56 games. Were Kashiwa Reysol to mount a serious challenge across all four competitions in 2015, including a third-round play-off in the Champions League, they would face 64 games, plus any associated challenges presented by FIFA’s illusorily-named Club World Cup. Nonetheless, this is not an issue merely affecting Japanese players and Japanese football. An English football team of Gamba’s 2014 stature would complete 51 matches to achieve a domestic treble next year. Similarly a Premier League club winning a domestic treble and UEFA Champions League would face 63 games over the course of a season, more if it was the UEFA Europa League. While it’s reasonable to state that the number of competitive fixtures should be reduced rather than augmented if player welfare is deemed worthy of consideration, alternative re-configurations of the domestic calendar are feasible, such as the removal of the two-legged quarter- and semi-finals in the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, or more pertinently a wholly necessary revamp of a currently devalued Emperor’s Cup including the possible later entry of J.League 1 teams. That the two-stage season was previously abandoned in part so as not to interfere with the Emperor’s Cup should therefore provide the impetus to rehabilitate what should be the country’s premier knock-out competition, but where total attendance for the 2014 semi-finals didn’t exceed 9,000.
Gamba Osaka defeat Adelaide United 3-0 in the 2008 AFC Champions League Final, first-leg, which they would win 5-0 on aggregate. Only three Japanese sides have appeared in the final in the professional era.
The key factor in such a change to the Emperor’s Cup is, however, the Japan Football Association as competition organiser. As the JFA shows no sign of re-considering its view that the J.League should switch to an Autumn-Spring calendar despite the frequently fearsome Japanese winter and a number of stadia which afford very limited protection from the elements, underlined by the league’s vision for 2020 including all seating being covered by a roof, its intractability in this regard may make changes elsewhere less likely. What the two-stage allows for, nonetheless, is a window in the season in which players can be transferred in and out of the J.League, rather than the more disruptive effects of stars leaving during a campaign and with limited possibilities to replace them, a more natural break in the season during which international competitions can be played, and for the vast majority of players, a break providing rest and recuperation akin to a European winter break.
In addition, it’s evident from the very small number of clubs which complete trebles – arguably only Hong Kong’s Sun Hei in 2004-05 completed a quadruple of major trophies, defined as excluding Super Cups or their equivalents – the number of fronts on which a club competes and the number of additional games those competitions levy necessarily affords some intra-competition balance. A team which completes a domestic treble is to be lauded on the basis of it being an extraordinary, rare and very challenging feat. Beyond mitigating against player welfare issues, for reasons of competition and fairness it is certainly not in a league’s or neutral’s interest to try and introduce mechanisms by which it becomes easier for a club to complete such an achievement.
There is an argument based in sports economics as to why the J.League returning to the two-stage system should be welcome. While one of the two stage’s detractors has pointed to the J.League’s community-based approach as helping prevent the dominance of corporate franchises to be found in Japanese baseball, the J.League’s club licensing system, introduced with many laudable goals including securing the financial viability of clubs themselves and thus league competition itself, a key component in ensuring that there is no repeat of the years in which gates decreased dramatically, wage bills per club were twice the amount generated through gate receipts, sponsors withdrew and one team collapsed (Manzenreiter & Horne, 2005), is highly likely to produce precisely the kind of domination seen in numerous European leagues and domestic baseball. The licensing system, which places restrictions on J.League club losses and mandates severe punishments for those which breach its conditions, in its simplest terms effectively limits clubs to spending no more than they earn. Maintaining a single stage season would likely mean those sides with the greatest income, and thus the biggest spending power, would come to dominate the league, a power which would ultimately be enhanced by sides capable of financing and building new stadia and significantly enhancing revenues, such as Gamba Osaka, a possibility not necessarily able to be realised by teams based outside major metropolitan areas. Some of the more memorable stories from the 2013 and 2014 seasons were the unbeaten runs and title challenges from two of the J.League’s smaller sides, the now-relegated Omiya Ardija, who, while based in Saitama are dwarfed in city and prefectural terms by Urawa Reds, and fourth-placed Sagan Tosu, who in the 2013 season were the division’s second lowest-ranked club by revenue and fourth lowest-ranked club by payroll, with Saga Prefecture ranking 42nd of Japan’s 47 prefectures by population. While those challenges ultimately fell apart due to managerial and boardroom issues, the likes of similarly sized teams competing for championship titles in future is surely to be welcome, but sustaining such challenges over a full season with club licensing is less likely. This is particularly the case as discussions have reportedly taken place to abolish the rules forbidding majority foreign ownership of clubs, with City Football Group well positioned to open a branch office in Japan as a precursor to proceeding with purchasing a controlling stake in Yokohama F.Marinos (The Japan Times, 2014). Parent companies and teams may seek to follow Yokohama F.Marinos in welcoming outside investment, reducing parent influence and funding, and potentially ushering in a new and arguably long overdue era of football-oriented executives. Foreign investment in football clubs tends to be targeted, at least in the initial stages, according to one or more of the following factors, which are also often interlinked: those with the largest revenue; those based in the biggest and most modern stadia; those with the greatest number of supporters; those based in the largest metropolitan areas. It should therefore come as no surprise that CFG’s investment was in a club with a global car giant as its parent company on which it is heavily reliant for income, which plays in a stadium opened in 1998 and whose capacity will only be exceeded by the new national stadium planned for the 2020 Olympic Games, which possesses the most modern training facilities, and which is based in the country’s second-biggest city. One might therefore urge caution in seeking to continue with other aspects found in some European football leagues, as it might just ensure that European-style club dominance follows, unwelcome to those who appreciate uncertainty of outcome most of all, which includes TV viewers and broadcasters (Forrest, Simmons & Buraimo, 2005), and potential broadcast advertisers accordingly.
There are nonetheless improvements which can be made elsewhere. Successful business and marketing strategies, particularly in South-East Asia, are helping to deliver new revenues to the league and the wider Japanese business community, but need to be followed by a coordinated international digital programme, with current digital engagement largely corresponding to a national practice on the internet that is overwhelmingly in Japanese, by Japanese and for Japanese (Coates and Holyrood, 2003; Phillips, 2014). J.League 2’s FC Gifu, whose average league gate in 2014 was 7,584 having never previously topped 4,525 despite similar sporting performance, and Matsumoto Yamaga, who will compete in the top tier for the first time in their history in 2015 having been in the fourth tier as recently as 2009, show a way forward for clubs to properly engage with their supporters and boost stadium attendance. CFG’s involvement at F.Marinos, meanwhile, will surely be pointed in the direction of growing average gates beyond a typical 23-25,000 in a city whose population is 3.7 million. But these are things that can be done in tandem with changes to competition, rather than necessarily as alternatives. As a result, whether by design, by accident, or most likely both, the J.League has introduced a league structure which to smaller or larger degrees will safeguard uncertainty of outcome, likely create larger revenue streams, create more matches with more meaningful outcomes more of the time, all while ensuring that most players will complete a similar or fewer number of games than their counterparts in the Premier League, giving teams more time to replace talented players lost to foreign competitions and in theory supporting player recuperation, supporting the national team and maintaining the integrity of its own competition. These are questions which will only be fully answered next year and beyond by spectator numbers, broadcast ratings and revenue, but that the J.League has been willing to change structures in the past points to the real possibility that it will change again in the future. At the present time, however, it deserves much more applause than approbation.
Disclaimer – the author completed his MBA dissertation on behalf of the J.League. All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.
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For an alternative perspective on whether three points for a win achieved its aims, see the more limited work of Garicano, L., & Palacios-Huerta, I. (2005). ‘Sabotage in tournaments: Making the beautiful game a bit less beautiful’, Discussion Paper Series- Centre For Economic Policy Research London, 5231, p. ALL, British Library Document Supply Centre Inside Serials & Conference Proceedings, EBSCOhost. (Accessed 31 December 2014).
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Phillips, D. (2014). Aiding internationalisation: how does the J.League best utilise digital media to deliver international engagement? MBA in Football Industries dissertation.
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