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DAZN chief admits errors, sees bright future for J. League

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Staff Writer

The chief executive of sports streaming service DAZN insists the problems that plagued the much-trumpeted launch of its J. League coverage have been fixed, and remains confident that it can revolutionize the way that Japanese fans watch sports.

“We are disrupting, we are breaking new ground,” James Rushton told The Japan Times in an exclusive interview before last weekend’s J. League fixtures. “And we will not rest until everything is 100 perfect, 100 percent of the time.”

The British-based Perform Group last year bought the domestic broadcasting rights for the J. League in a 10-year, ¥210 billion deal, making all matches in Japan’s top three soccer divisions available to customers via DAZN on all computers and mobile devices.

But the launch of the service fell flat on the opening day of the season on Feb. 25, with fans frustrated by time lags and pauses in the broadcast, and Gamba Osaka’s game against Ventforet Kofu not being shown until the first 55 minutes had already been played.

DAZN’s reputation took a further hit when some customers were then mistakenly sent emails telling them that their subscriptions had been cancelled, but Rushton insists that the company has corrected its mistakes.

“It was a significant problem,” he said. “I am very aware of the impact both in terms of brand and in terms of confidence in the service. But we’ve fixed it, we fixed it quickly, and we put in additional resilience so that it won’t happen again.

“And I think, importantly, we fronted up to it. We were very open and honest with the customers and the league and the press. You certainly wouldn’t put that in your playbook in terms of starting the first weekend with a major rights-holder. But since then, we’ve had fantastic stats and fantastic metrics.”

DAZN’s hopes of winning over Japanese sports fans largely unfamiliar with streaming will not have been helped by its early teething problems, but Rushton is confident that the product is good enough to change viewing habits.

“DAZN is accessible anywhere, anytime,” he said. “You can broadcast it on multiple devices and you can’t do that with traditional TV. There are several benefits to the fan.

“Some of the reasons why consumer behaviors (in Japan) are less digitally savvy than the U.S. or Europe is because the proposition to the Japanese consumer hasn’t been particularly compelling. If you provide the right type of product, at the right price, then Japanese sports fans are like any sports fans — they will go to where the premium sport is and where the best offer is.”

Perform’s contract with the J. League is the biggest commercial deal in the history of Japanese sports, and came as something of a surprise when it was announced last July. The J. League was struggling to attract new fans 23 years after it was founded, featured few players with an international profile, and had little money to make a difference.

Perform’s current deal covers only domestic broadcasting rights, but Rushton says the firm is also interested in acquiring the international rights when they become available in 18 months’ time.

“The quality of football in the league is high,” he said. “Is it as high a level as the Bundesliga or the Premier League or La Liga? No, obviously not. But we’re trying to make the coverage more of a European style — 12 to 20 HD camera coverage so that the actual product looks better. The league and the clubs are committed to investing in international player recruitment, but also trying to keep the talent that they have in Japan for longer.

“So if the product looks better and the league improves, I do think it will have an international appeal. Will I be waking up at 2 a.m. to watch J. League games in the UK? Probably not. But where the J. League can expand is in Asia. And then if they sign players with an international presence, you could see certain markets being interested in broadcasting the league.”

One significant change that has already taken place was the J. League’s decision to scrap its playoff format after only two years and return to the single-league system from this season. Discussions over the change began shortly after the league struck its deal with Perform, but Rushton denies that his company had anything to do with the decision.

“We have absolutely no direct influence over the league and the clubs and how they structure the style of competition,” he said. “As we are a significant stakeholder with a commercial interest in the success of the league, the league come to us and we come to them with ideas and opportunities. But there is no direct influence on the fundamental strategy of the league.

“What we do have some influence on, and what we’ve started to work with the league on, is fixtures,” he continued. “We’ve now got the league to agree to have a Sunday prime-time fixture, which will be the game that we broadcast with 16-camera coverage.

“We are encouraging the league and the clubs to think about a more European model of fixtures, where they are spread over the weekend or even the week. We’d be interested in speaking to the league and the teams about doing Friday night games. But ultimately, that is at the discretion of the league and the clubs.”

Rushton says he has found J. League officials to be “incredibly open and accommodating,” and believes chairman Mitsuru Murai is leading the league in the right direction

“What impressed me about Mr. Murai and his team is that they’ve got a really good balance between where they’ve come from and where they need to go,” said Rushton. “They understand that they have quite a unique opportunity with our investment, but also the broader investment in sport in Japan, to grow the league. And to grow they league, they realize that they have to look outside of Japan at international markets.”