The J. League recently confirmed that from 2015 the J1 format was to be fundamentally overhauled. Playing each other team twice and calling the best performer champion is out. In its place will be a two stage league/cup hybrid as unique to Japan as maid cafés and noodle burgers.
The news faced immediate opposition from the very people expected to be watching, and raised eyebrows from several notable players. Since then the J. League has been working to persuade the country their actions are not only in the game’s interests, but are essential for its survival.
The J. League has stressed falling crowd figures as a crucial factor. 2012 average gates came in around 1,500 below a recent high in 2008 of 19,202. For the growth and competitiveness of football in Japan, and subsequent appeal to casual supporters, the current league format is said to be unworkable. Reasoning follows that if more weight is added to the average match, with less dead rubbers to clutter the fixture list, average gates will recover. No figures are yet to be presented to buttress this wall of logic, but one upshot loudly hailed is the sponsorship rights cash explosion. Sponsorship rights spoils are set to top 1 billion yen, a carrot irresistible enough to see the plan swiftly approved by clubs.
It is important to approach the issue of attendance patterns, especially in relation to league format, with caution. The J. League played a two stage system in its formative years and has never been more popular. However, the late 90s bust, several degrees worse than that said to be occurring now, required a World Cup to see crowds recover.
Recover they did, and an abandoning of a two stage league in 2005 did nothing to stop attendances rising. No satisfactory conclusions can be made by looking backwards, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest tweaking the league format now will significantly increase interest. Incomes may currently be down, but to imply that the last five years represent a trend brutal enough to spell the demise of the league itself requires a stretching of the imagination. It suggests the J. League is a competition on the brink of collapse, with clubs operating a whisker from liquidation. This isn’t the case.
The new league format, locked in for a minimum of five years, will split the footballing year in to two parts. Home and away games will be balanced over each stage meaning two mini leagues of 18 games. Once both stages are complete, the cup phase begins. First stage winner plays second stage runner up, second stage winner play first stage runner up. The winners of these games meet, not for the championship, but for the right to challenge the overall points winner of both stages combined. The winner of that game will be J. League champions.
Everyone has witnessed their team perform like champions for half a season, only to fall away when things got interesting. Splitting the season in two is said to create a wider opportunity for title challengers, rewarding those who string a run together with a crack at the title. At the same time big club monopolies will be prevented. Concerns over strong team dominance are thankfully not yet a major worry. In the last decade, seven different teams have lifted the J1 trophy.
The J. League played two stages during its early boom era, so why the hostility at a return? Crucial here is that the old and new systems are entirely different beasts. Between 1993 and 2004 (excepting 1996) a two leg final was contested between the first and second stage winners. This at least saw a winner of one stage be crowned overall champions, worlds away from the 2015 post season. It is also important not to forget that even the original two stage system drew criticism at the time. As the novelty of the new league wore off, growing numbers grew disillusioned by the failure of the best team to be recognised accordingly. In 2000 Kashiwa won the most points over the year, but finished the two stages in 4th and 2nd, failing to gain entry into the championship playoff.
A return to that format was roundly rejected when hinted at last year, but this autumn’s announcement of a long-winded post season pushed fan patience over the edge. The basis of complaints centres on fair play, or lack of it, when crowning the year’s best team. Unlikely that four different teams will occupy the top two spots each stage, it is expected that third or even forth will by necessity be rewarded with progression to the cup phase. The overall points winner will in probability end one or both stages in the top two, and this demands further spaces be granted a playoff berth. Points will continue to decide positions, but positions will only decide rewards pending an audit of surrounding team’s performance. However the playoffs competitors are eventually decided, what is clear is one team could win both stages only to lose in the final to an opponent placed as low as fourth in one just half of the season.
The league’s proactive stance against the recent revenue slump and its pursuit of growth is commendable. That said it shouldn’t be taken on faith that because the league’s bottom line is currently slipping that the competition format is to blame. Rather, it’s likely less fiddling and more stability would be of benefit. Football cultures emerge slowly, and as for club football, Japan is still only 20. The drop over recent seasons could be said to correspond to the flight of the biggest stars to Europe. In this climate, domestic football should look towards its baseball cousin for inspiration, where it can be found on a number of levels. With over twice the number games per season than J1, average gates are still around 8000 higher. Reasons for this go deep, but in simple terms, it’s a combination of sixty years of professionalism, cheaper tickets, and vitally, purpose built stadia and a globally recognised high standard of play.
A league to rival those in Europe is the long term goal, but something that can be addressed more immediately is old, uncomfortable stadia and lack of star appeal. Big name stars are proven to attract fans, but foreign pin ups are at an all time low. Currently the largest crowds are housed in modern, covered grounds, and that is no coincidence. The roofless, aging athletics venues used by recent champions Hiroshima and Nagoya will need more than a competition tweak to see them regularly draw bigger numbers. As strategies to increase the league’s domestic appeal, these are high outlay, mid to long-term plans, but come with evidence of their effectiveness. Contrast with the new J1 format which amounts to superficial tinkering, uncertain of any long lasting positive effect.
As soon as the news broke social media was awash with complaints and objections, but protestations, whether banners, letters to J. League HQ or online petitions, have been ignored. The two stage press conference alluded to consultation with supporters, a fact which came as news to hundreds who had displayed hostile banners. No openness to discussion, before, during or after the decision making process has produced a competition format nobody wants, and an atmosphere which threatens to alienate long time supporters. When the negative reaction became clear, the league should have seized the opportunity to begin a dialogue. Until they do, relations will continue to sour. If the heart and soul of the J. League, those who make the noise, colour and atmosphere which attract the casual fans, begin to stay away, instead of the hard-sought after growth, we may witness a snowball effect in reverse. That really would threaten the future of this competition.
Read more from Barry on Japanese football - from a Shimzu S-Pulse perspective - here.