Soccer | From the Spot

Sweeping changes needed for J. League Cup

by Dan Orlowitz

With the J. League season in full swing, it’s sometimes easy to forget that the J. League YBC Levain Cup is also in progress.

As Japan’s four Asian Champions League representatives battle it out across East Asia, 14 other first-division teams, as well as two second-division teams, are contesting the group stage of the J. League’s oldest competition, which launched in 1992 to hype up the inaugural 1993 season.

The winner gets a respectable payout of ¥150 million (about $1.35 million), a profile-boosting “Cup of Champions” match against South America’s Copa Sudamericana winners and — perhaps most importantly — plenty of cookies, crackers and biscuits from title sponsor Yamazaki Biscuit Co.

With group stage games often taking place on Wednesday nights between weekend league fixtures, lineups packed with reserve players are common. In recent years, the Levain Cup has served as somewhat of a petri dish for J. League officiating tweaks, including the past use of goal line referees and this year’s scheduled introduction of video assistant referees in the knockout stage.

But one of the competition’s biggest problems is that few fans are watching, either in two-thirds empty stadiums or at home.

Part of this is due to the stagnation of the schedule. With the league’s top teams earning a bye to the knockout stage, the group stage offers few marquee matchups such as derbies. The absence of Urawa Reds, the Levain Cup’s top draw in recent years, can have a major impact on average attendance.

Balkanization of the J. League’s broadcasting rights has also put viewers at an expensive impasse.

Just three years ago, SkyPerfecTV (commonly known as “Skapa”) subscribers paid as little as ¥2,962 monthly for a VOD service which included the J1 and J2 leagues, a selection of J3 games, and the entire Levain Cup.

Today, primary rights holder Fuji Television broadcasts only the final nationally, while select games are shown on the network’s premium channels. Those wishing to see any game live must subscribe to Skapa’s soccer package, which costs ¥2,980 per month and includes the Bundesliga as well as a handful of minor European leagues.

That’s on top of the ¥1,890 per month many pay for streaming service DAZN and its complete coverage of the three divisions, meaning that the monthly price of being able to watch the entirety of the J. League has jumped from nearly ¥3,000 to just under ¥5,000.

Regardless of how much value one places in all of the other content bundled with these services, that’s quite an increase to ask of the many J. League fans who simply want to keep up with their favorite league.

As with many things in Japan, much of this comes down to relationships. Fuji has shown the tournament since 2002, and Skapa was incredibly influential as the J. League’s main broadcaster for a decade before DAZN’s takeover — their legacy embodied by their ad copy “Watch home games at the stadium and away games on Skapa.” It’s no surprise that the league would want to hedge its bets.

But while DAZN’s streaming of the J. League has come with its own complications, the fact remains that having the entire J. League under one broadcaster, with the final still aired nationwide on Fuji, would be a commonsense and pro-consumer move.

While the Levain Cup is sometimes short on star power, it’s also a prime chance to watch Japan’s promising young talent develop on the big stage. With the J. League’s international broadcasting rights reverting back from Skapa at the end of this year, the tournament is a potentially attractive product to market to overseas broadcasters who are increasingly hungry for J. League content.

The Levain Cup itself is in need of a rethink, and I’m one of many who would love to see a knockout tournament featuring all three divisions, similar to the English League Cup. Having lower-seeded clubs host would also be a breath of fresh air, allowing J2 and J3 fans more chances to see their teams face stronger opposition — even if stars like Andres Iniesta and David Villa won’t always be called up by J1 sides.

But even if the J. League rediscovers the “magic of the cup,” the impact of such a change will still be muted if fans can’t conveniently watch the games, which is why the league should strongly consider arranging for matches to be shown on DAZN in 2020.