J. League contender Tokyo Gas bent on survival

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff writer

As dwindling attendance figures raise concerns over the future of Japan’s only professional soccer league, one local Tokyo team busily preparing to join the new second division of the J. League next year is hoping that careful management will ensure its success.

Attendance at soccer matches here has declined, and most teams, both professional and nonprofessional, have been suffering from significant losses. Shimizu S-Pulse, the Shizuoka-based J. League team, went virtually bankrupt last year, as did Saga-based Tosu Futures, which was in the country’s top nonprofessional league, the Japan Football League, and was aiming to go pro.

Average attendance per J. League game nearly halved from its 1994 peak of 19,600 to 10,100 in 1997, as the “soccer boom” that followed the league’s inauguration in 1992 cooled off. Although the figure, apparently boosted by World Cup fever, has recovered somewhat this year, to 12,824 so far, some observers are worried that the effects won’t last long after the world soccer festival ends.

Concern over the league’s economic future has encouraged the Tokyo team’s management office to take a very cautious approach: They plan to operate on an annual budget of 1 billion yen — only one-third that of an average J. League team. “We have carefully observed (the current situation) surrounding the J. League. Fortunately or not, we got a late start (going professional),” said Yutaka Murabayashi, secretary general of a business association in charge of launching the team’s managing company — Tokyo Gas Football Club.

Next year, the J. League is to be expanded into two divisions; the Tokyo team hopes to enter the lower division. Under the new system, at least the two top teams from the lower division will be promoted each year, trading places with the two poorest performers in the upper division.

The Tokyo team, to be renamed F. C. Tokyo, is regarded as the most probable candidate for promotion to the upper division as it is now ranked No. 1 in the Japan Football League. In addition to F. C. Tokyo, six other teams plan to join the J. League’s second division next year.

The budgets of those teams range from 300 million yen to 1 billion yen, far smaller than the 3 billion yen average budget of those currently playing in the J. League. J. League Managing Director Kozo Kinomoto welcomes the low-budget approach, saying that there should be a variation in budget scales and that a soccer team should be independent from its parent company. “A team should be run with a budget based on its (independent) revenues,” Kinomoto said.

Indeed, some J. League teams already appear to be on the brink of bankruptcy with their ballooning deficits exceeding capital.

The accumulated deficits of Avispa Fukuoka, which has 2.57 billion yen in capital, has reached 2.49 billion yen, prompting the Fukuoka City Government to add 400 million yen to the team’s capital to bail out its managing company.

The accumulated losses of Vissel Kobe, which has capital of 2.18 billion yen, are expected to grow to more than 3 billion yen during this fiscal year; the Kobe City Government, in response, has extended a loan of 900 million yen.

Kinomoto said that some J. League teams, already saddled with billions of yen in deficits, could go bankrupt if demoted to the lower division, where smaller audiences and revenues are expected. “If they go bankrupt, we should just cope with it in a more matter-of-fact way. J. League is not a ‘convoy system’ (to protect the weak) anyway,” Kinomoto said.

But what has caused the apparent decline in J. League fortunes since its stirring debut in 1992? Kinomoto pointed out that most teams, carried away by the league’s surprising success, neglected efforts to attract visitors after the initial craze died down. “The stadiums of some teams are still full at every game,” Kinomoto said, referring to the popular Kashima Antlers and Urawa Red Diamonds. “I think it’s due to the differences in the efforts of management.”

The two teams, from the start of the J. League, have placed top priority on local fans. Both allocated a bigger share of tickets for locals in admissions lotteries, increasing the number of ardent fans sharing a sense of community with the teams, Kinomoto said.

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