The J. League has built up a richly deserved reputation for leadership and vision since it began two decades ago, but this week’s decision to revert to a two-stage championship risks setting the Japanese game back by years.
The J. League on Tuesday announced that it will implement a new split-season format as of 2015, ending 10 years of single-league competition in a bid to lure back lost fans, sponsors and broadcast revenues.
Under the new system, the champion of the first stage will meet the runnerup of the second and vice versa, with the two winners playing off to determine which team faces the side that finished the season with the most overall points in the championship final.
If that sounds confusing on paper, the reality is likely to be even messier. The chances of the winners and runnersup of each stage and the side with the most overall points being five different teams are practically nonexistent, and the potential for misunderstanding, anticlimax and discontent is obvious.
Had the same system been in place last season, Vegalta Sendai and Sanfrecce Hiroshima would have qualified as champion and runnerup of the first stage, with Sanfrecce and Yokohama F. Marinos filling the same positions for the second. The overall points champion, meanwhile, would also have been Sanfrecce.
What the J. League would do to resolve such a situation should it occur in 2015 has — unbelievably — yet to be decided. Such vague thinking does nobody any favors, but it is indicative of the league’s determination to drive the changes through regardless of widespread and increasingly vocal opposition from fans.
“Our core fans are very important, but we have realized there are issues we have to view as being bigger problems,” said Daisuke Nakanishi, director of the league’s competition and business department, earlier this week.
Ignoring the opinion of its loyal fan base, however, is perhaps the worst and most basic mistake the J. League could possibly make. And if attracting new supporters is the aim, it is worth remembering how quickly casual interest dropped off once the initial excitement of the league’s 1993 launch had died down.
The J. League undoubtedly has its problems, with too many young players leaving for Europe, the standard of foreign players lower than in the past, and the majority of the national team plying their trade abroad.
But surely the answer is to confront these issues head on rather than pulling the rug from under everyone’s feet. The J. League has made enormous strides to establish itself as a well-managed and highly respected competition over the years, and this latest development seems remarkably out of character for an organization with such a proven track record of competence.
The J. League can rightly be proud of the progress it has made over the last 20 years, but it is hard to see this week’s decision as anything other than a serious and potentially very harmful backward step.
Now, more than ever, the fans need to make their voices heard.