The long wait is finally over for Japan’s top two professional leagues, with both Nippon Professional Baseball and the J. League taking to the field in June after coronavirus-imposed postponements to their respective seasons.
Fans of both sports will have to be patient for some time before they’re able to return to stadiums, as the two leagues will compete behind closed doors because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But in a survey conducted by the Research Institute for Sport Business at Waseda University, a majority of fans are more than understanding of the measures put in place by the two leagues to resume play without spectators, in light of the circumstances.
“While the expansion of the coronavirus has stabilized for the time being, it’s important for professional baseball and the J. League, two of Japan’s major sporting competitions, to recognize the perceptions of the citizens,” the survey stated.
The institute polled participants three times last month, beginning May 15, one day after the state of emergency was lifted in 39 out of the country’s 47 prefectures.
The results indicated a reluctance to have the leagues resume with spectators, with answers favoring the return of fans rising from just 13.7 percent to 17.5 percent over the course of the survey period.
On the other hand, approval of the two leagues opening behind closed doors rose from 44 percent to 55.8 percent over the same period.
According to Kazuhiko Sawai, an associate professor for the School of Commerce at Meiji University who was part of the survey project, the results show that the J. League and NPB have succeeded in earning the understanding of the public at large.
This stands in contrast with professional soccer in Germany, where similar surveys generated drastically different responses before the top-flight Bundesliga restarted without fans on May 16.
In late April, 49 percent of respondents to a survey by German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle said they were not in favor of matches without spectators, while 33 percent were in favor of “ghost games” held behind closed doors.
Another survey by YouGov commissioned by the German Press Agency on May 26-28 showed similar results, with 47 percent of those having questioned against the resumption.
“In Germany, their league restarted while a certain number of people were against it,” Sawai, who specializes in sports management, told The Japan Times on Monday. “I think the public in Japan are more sympathetic to pro baseball and the J. League.”
Meanwhile, when it came to actually attending games, the majority of Japanese respondents expressed caution. Asked if they were worried about being in the stadium among a larger group of fans, more than 80 percent responded that they would be “very worried” or “relatively worried.”
Sawai stressed that while researchers have not fully analyzed the implication of the results, he thinks that the Japanese public is more tolerant toward the leagues returning despite the challenges of the pandemic.
“It might not just be the case for pro baseball but for high school baseball,” Sawai said. “As much as (the Japanese public) is sensitive about the risks of infection and reluctant to resuming classes at schools, it also wants the players to play at Koshien (the National High School Baseball Championship, which has been called off this year).
“Obviously, even if they hosted the Koshien tournament without fans, there would be thousands of players (and others) coming from across the country who could be exposed to greater risk of infection. But even recognizing the risks, the public is sympathetic to the players and wants them to play.”
Sawai said that the resumption of the two pro leagues, who formed a joint task force to respond to the coronavirus threat, will encourage other sports leagues and events to open their doors as well.
“It sends a message that you can do the same if the pro baseball league and J. League do it,” said Sawai, who also serves on the board of several sports organizations including American football’s X League. “What’s important is that they (stick to their plan) despite any criticism.”
Even after NPB and the J. League begin allowing spectators back in their stadiums, fans will probably have to refrain from conventional ways of cheering such as singing, yelling and playing musical instruments.
But Sawai thinks that once Japan gets over the crisis and secures the safety of its population, fans’ supporting styles will return to normal. He noted, however, that leagues and clubs who adopt alternative supporting methods such as technology-based services could continue to use them after the crisis is over.
For instance, the J. League’s Jubilo Iwata plans to enable fans to cheer and clap remotely through speakers installed at their home stadium using a smartphone app developed by Yamaha Corporation.
“Even when you can’t go to the stadium because you are busy with work, or when you can’t go because you live far from the stadium, but you still want to root for your team, those new systems and services could respond to their needs,” Sawai said. “So later on, when things get back to normal, those services could remain.”