Omiya Ardija and the invisible fans

It's the 21st century.  Getting attendance figures right shouldn't be a huge problem, give or take the odd one or two.  How about 111,737?  Michael Hudson on a problem for the J-League.

If Omiya Ardija fans imagined things couldn’t get much worse than a 2-1 defeat to Saitama City rivals Urawa Reds, they were quickly proved wrong. Within days, reports began to surface of a discrepancy between the official attendance of 33,600 and the 29,000 tickets actually counted on the day. “We want to get to the bottom of things as soon as possible,” Omiya president Seigo Watanabe told journalists outside a J-League executive committee meeting. “We will make a statement once our investigation is complete.”

Ominously for Ardija fans, there were already signs that this was something more than just a one-off mistake. ‘‘There was no explanation about whether it was intentional or not but the number was problematic, so that also presents a problem with their past records and activities,’’ J-League general secretary Hideyuki Hanyu was reported as saying.

What came next was worse than anyone had expected.  The investigation found attendances at 58 games had been misreported, inflating Omiya’s crowd figures by 111,737 since the opening of the redeveloped NACK5 Stadium in November 2007. “It was poor management,” said a tearful Watanabe in a press conference called to announce the results and his own resignation.  “It’s embarrassing, but I wasn’t aware of the J-League’s standards for defining attendance.” Two team officials were fired for intentionally inflating the figures by including volunteers, players’ guests, VIPs and people taking part in pre-match entertainment events in the attendance count, in violation of strict league rules. Watanabe’s public act of self-flagellation was followed by his appointment as a behind the scenes advisor on a contract of unspecified length.

“I am angry,” said recently appointed J-League chairman Kazumi Ohigashi, responding to Ardija’s admission of guilt. “This damages the credibility of the entire league.  It just cannot happen. The actions of a single club ruin the efforts of the 36 other clubs who are working hard to bring in as many fans as possible.”

Ironically, Ohigashi’s statement provides a clue to how this situation might have come about. Under league pressure to increase attendance figures, and emboldened by his team’s return to the enlarged 15,000-capacity NACK5 Stadium, Watanabe set a wildly ambitious target of attracting more than 300,000 fans a season through the gate before 2009.  This for a club which had been playing to crowds of around 6,000 less than three years earlier and whose average attendance the previous season had been just 10,234.  “Watanabe has started each year with grandiose promises that have fallen through,” wrote Agent Orange on the Go! Go! Omiya Ardija blog. “He only ever kept one and now we can’t be sure if even that was honestly achieved.”

The anger directed at Watanabe – seen by many fans as a well-meaning but ineffectual blunderer - is matched by a growing feeling that the club provides a convenient scapegoat for a problem which extends far beyond Ardija alone. Watanabe implied as much in his resignation speech, asking that the attendance records of the other 35 J-League clubs be reviewed. Rumours abound that at least six other teams are currently suspected of falsifying attendance figures. Mike Innes, also of Go! Go! OmiyaArdija , summed up what many fans privately fear: “If Omiya have on the basis of Watanabe's accusations sent league officials off on a wild goose chase, they are hardly likely to treat Ardija more leniently.”

Shigeru Suzuki, Watanabe’s replacement and head of business operation at Ardija from 1999 to 2004, has established a special ethics panel and called for the club to undergo organisational reform. “I want to make an effort to clean up the club, which is loved by its supporters and the local community,” he told a press conference in Saitama.

With the J-League awaiting the results of their wider investigation before announcing any punishment, those supporters fear the worst. A points deduction could see Omiya (nicknamed 'the squirrels') relegated and their sponsors NTT depart for another club.  Ardija went into this weekend’s away game at bottom-placed Shonan Bellmare (which was postponed due to a typhoon)  just five points above Kyoto Sanga and a return to J2. Watanabe’s final presidential legacy remains to be written.

You can read more from Michael at the excellent Accidental Groundhopper and be sure to follow him on Twitter @DolphinHotel