Soccer | From the Spot

Thai star drives J. League's popularity abroad

by Dan Orlowitz

After seven years of hard work, the J. League’s vaunted “Asian Strategy” has resulted in some significant successes.

Building on them will be an even bigger challenge.

European stars such as Andres Iniesta and David Villa may be giving the J. League its long-awaited global exposure, but it’s players from nations such as Thailand and Vietnam who are forging deeper connections across Asia.

“It was huge exposure when Chanathip (Songkrasin) moved to Sapporo — not only in Thailand but across Asia, because this was the biggest move from Thailand to a different country,” explains the J. League’s Kei Koyama. “Now we have an official Thai Facebook page with 450,000 followers, almost double that of the Japanese account.”

Koyama works in the league’s International Relations Department, which launched in 2015. The section began in 2012 as the Asian Strategy Office when the J. League — reeling from the twin sucker punches of 2008 “Lehman shock” and the March 11 disaster — sought to expand its profile and marketing footprint into new territories.

Its efforts focused on Southeast Asia, a region with a rapidly growing soccer scene and a friendly relationship with Japan. As the J. League established partnerships with local leagues, Japanese clubs also began scouting the region’s top talent such as Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh and Indonesia’s Irfan Bachdim.

It was in 2017 that Consadole struck gold after signing midfielder Chanathip. The “Thai Messi” impressed on and off the pitch, bringing the J. League’s northernmost club media exposure, sponsorships and thousands of new followers.

“There are 2 million people in Sapporo, but (Consadole) reached 3 million people by streaming Chanathip’s first training session,” says Koyama. “There’s a big potential to promote the city and Hokkaido.”

Consadole games are broadcast in Thailand on local cable broadcaster TrueVisions, with matches such as the 2018 season-opening “Thai Derby” between Consadole and Teerasil Dangda’s Sanfrecce Hiroshima drawing bigger audiences than the Thai League. According to research firm Nielsen Sports, awareness and interest of the J. League in Thailand are catching up to those of the Spanish and German first divisions.

Chanathip has also drawn Thai fans by the planeload to Sapporo. In August, energy company Idemitsu Kosan brought 100 young Thai players and parents to Sapporo to watch a home game against Urawa Reds as part of a talent search co-sponsored by Chanathip’s father.

Consadole is one of nine J1 clubs using the league-organized English-language ticketing portal, which it operates through Ticket Pia. With four J2 teams also using the portal and two more J1 sides — FC Tokyo and Vissel Kobe — using other third-party services, Koyama admits that more can and should be done to introduce foreign soccer fans to the Japanese matchday experience.

“We don’t think this is the best way to sell tickets to foreigners, but this is the minimum we can provide to clubs,” Koyama says. “In the future, we are discussing what we can do with the clubs to bring more international fans to the stadium, both (tourists) and people living in Japan.”

Several Thailand-based travel agencies arrange tours for Consadole games, and according to Koyama the team’s public training sessions are viewed by around 40-50 Thais per day. But neither Consadole nor the J. League keep detailed statistics regarding foreign attendees — something the league is set on changing as part of its increasing awareness of sports tourism’s potential.

“What we’re thinking is to work with a few clubs as a pilot (program) to create a good model for bringing foreign fans to the stadium,” Koyama says. “Sapporo will be one of them because they have a Thai star and more Thai fans are going there.”

Chanathip is not the only Thai player winning headlines in his homeland. Six Thai players are currently signed to J. League clubs, including Yokohama F. Marinos fullback Theerathon Bunmathan and Oita Trinita defender Thitipan Puangchan.

Their presence, and the success of other initiatives such as the annual J. League Asia Challenge, gives Koyama and his colleagues confidence that the league’s popularity in Thailand can endure even when the post-Chanathip era begins.

“Since we started this strategy, our goal has been to grow together with the Thai League or other Asian leagues,” says Koyama. “This is a unique strategy, and it’s different from other European leagues who come into Asian markets and take money. Our idea is to develop the Asian football market together and grow it together.

“Chanathip may go to Europe or back to Thailand, but since we have a strong relationship with the Thai League and the Football Association of Thailand, we can have more collaborations between leagues and clubs. Through these kinds of activities, maybe we can keep bringing good talent from Thailand to Japan.”