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Jury still out on new J. League championship format

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The J. League’s new playoff format produced a worthy champion and a thrilling finale in its debut season, but only time will tell if it is a success.

Sanfrecce Hiroshima beat Gamba Osaka in a two-legged championship final last week to claim the title, after a playoff series that pitted the regular season’s second- and third-ranked teams against each other in a one-off game for the right to play the top-ranked side in the final.

The fact that regular-season champions Sanfrecce — who picked up a J. League-record 74 points, scored a league-high 73 goals and conceded a league-low 30 — ended up lifting the trophy has spared the J. League some criticism, not least from Sanfrecce fans.

But the fact that Gamba — who finished the regular season 11 points behind Sanfrecce in third place and qualified for the playoffs only on goal difference — could quite conceivably have beaten them to the punch exposes the inherent unfairness in the system.

“We collected more points than any other team, and had we lost it would have discredited all my players’ effort and would have had a damaging effect on their confidence,” Sanfrecce manager Hajime Moriyasu said in his victory press conference.

Of course every team must play to the rules of the competition, and it is also true that many leagues around the world do not use the single-league format either. But that does not make the J. League’s revamped system any fairer, and the effect the changes had on the season’s ebb and flow were noticeable too.

Any notion of a title race was effectively punctured by the knowledge that the difference between finishing first, second and third ultimately counted for little. It was no surprise that the playoffs themselves delivered three high-quality matches steeped in dramatic tension — playoffs generally do — but the regular season’s second stage became something of a non-event amid the wait to get there.

Chiefly responsible was the format itself, which was confusing and unrealistic in its aim of producing five teams to contest the playoffs. In practice, the second-stage title race became little more than a footnote, while stage wins ultimately counted for nothing with all three playoff teams qualifying on the basis of their league positions.

Supporters of the new format will point to the average attendance, which rose from 17,240 last year to 17,803, the highest figure since 2010. That is certainly a positive trend, but there are many factors in play and there is also no sure way of knowing which direction it will take in the future.

Given the way the J. League has rejected fans’ opposition to the new system, however, it would come as little surprise if disgruntled supporters began voting with their feet. If fans, who invest huge amounts of time, energy and money, are unimpressed by what they see and feel their voices are being ignored, it will not take long for interest to drop off.

For all the J. League’s talk of attracting new fans, the changes are really about bringing in money from sponsors. There is certainly nothing wrong with that, but altering the core product is a risky strategy and one which could easily backfire in the long run.

It will take more than one season to judge whether the J. League’s new era is successful.