Soccer / J. League

J. League touts star power and digital marketing developments

by Dan Orlowitz

Staff Writer

For fans of the J. League, there is perhaps no date more anticipated than the opening day of the season.

But for those who share a fascination with the rapid evolution of sports marketing in Japan and how it applies to the beautiful game, Christmas comes twice a year.

The first such occasion comes in February with the release of the annual J. League Fan Survey, which since 2004 has opened a fascinating window into the demographics of J. League supporters, their spending and travel habits, and their motivations for supporting their local team.

But since 2015, December has brought one more treat in the form of the J. League PUB Report, a slick, 90-page document organized by leading marketing agency Deloitte in cooperation with the league.

As its name (P for “Publish,” U for “Understand” and B for “Build”) implies, the report is intended to summarize the progress the league has made on and off the pitch over the last season in an open and transparent manner to help stakeholders and observers understand the league’s direction.

While the document is only available in Japanese (and requires the now-outdated Adobe Flash to view online), the presentation and volume of information still represents a significant improvement from five years ago, when the league lacked a Twitter account and clubs were hesitant to transition to digital media.

This year’s PUB Report has plenty to crow about, but offers some fascinating insight as to the hurdles the league faces as it continues to expand its domestic and international footprint.

Total attendance across all competitions crossed 10 million for a fourth straight year, with the first division averaging above 19,000 per game for the first time since 2008. While the J1 suffered from several periods of low attendance due to frequent typhoons (18 matches suffered weather-related postponements, the most since 2011) and 76 midweek fixtures scheduled to accommodate the World Cup break, attendance in the last 10 rounds rebounded to give the top flight a roughly one-percent increase over 2017. The “Friday Night J. League” promotion, which saw 15 games held on Fridays rather than the traditional Saturday or Sunday, saw mixed success.

The J1 also saw a sharp increase in full houses (defined by the league as 80 percent or more of the stadium’s capacity), with 84 such matches compared to 69 in 2017. Now two-time champions Kawasaki Frontale sold out 16 of their 18 matches, while Vissel Kobe rode Andres Iniesta’s midsummer signing to 10 sellouts.

The report is, of course, more than happy to tout the effect of Iniesta and fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres on attendance. Vissel Kobe’s home crowds rose 44 percent after Iniesta’s arrival, while Torres’ Sagan Tosu enjoyed a boost of nearly 39 percent. Away games involving the two teams also experienced increases in attendance as high as 157 percent compared to the same matchups in 2017.

The impact of foreign stars on the league’s international popularity is still murky. While the J. League eagerly recites the number of times Iniesta’s news conference was aired in Qatar, Germany and France, overseas broadcasts of the league itself remain a major blind spot. International distribution was inconsistent in 2018, with only a limited number of games available in certain countries through streaming service DAZN and Thai broadcaster TrueTV.

The report touts Iniesta and Torres’ presence as part of a greater movement to improve the level of Japanese players by increasing the level of skill and competition through the import of talented foreigners. While England’s completely Premier League-based World Cup semifinalists are held up as an example of what the J. League could produce with a stronger domestic league, the report also notes that 73 percent of Japan’s World Cup squad play in Europe’s top five leagues.

Closer to home, the presence of Thai stars Chanathip Songkrasin, Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan in the J1 gave the J. League a huge boost in Thailand, with the league’s Thai-language Facebook page doubling its following to over 350,000 fans in 10 months. Chanathip’s Consadole Sapporo and Teerasil’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima are set to visit the Southeast Asian nation in January, a clear sign of how valued the “Land of a Thousand Smiles” is to the league’s Asian marketing strategy.

The J. League’s data-driven customer marketing has developed rapidly, with over 1 million fans signing up for “J. League IDs” since the service launched in 2017. The league’s official app and ticketing service allows for personalized marketing, which will expand in 2019 and beyond.

Speaking of personalization, a relaxation in merchandise rules will allow clubs to produce popular items such as T-shirts, towels, and keychains on their own rather than funneling the design and manufacturing through the league. The change will hopefully allow clubs to work with local manufacturers, develop unique designs and react faster to major milestones and cultural trends.

While most of the document outlines developments and expectations for business, marketing and grassroots development, there are occasional hints as to what fans can expect to see on the pitch in the future.

The most prominent in 2019 should be the first top-tier usage of Video Assistant Referees (VAR), which had a successful World Cup debut but a mixed reception in domestic leagues. The system, which has been tested offline and in Japanese youth competitions in 2018, should debut in an official capacity next year, possibly during the Levain Cup.