Just as Major League Soccer reinvigorated itself in the late 2000s with the digital-savvy “MLS 2.0” era, the J. League has in recent years significantly boosted its digital output, creating a strong and innovative online presence that has inspired other domestic sports leagues to follow suit.

But until this season, nearly all of those efforts have been in Japanese.

That’s all changed in the wake of the league’s establishment of an internal team to handle its international social media, with creative staff located in Bangkok, London and the United States working with J. League staff in Tokyo.

They’ve worked to dramatically expand the league’s English-language content, adding to an international portfolio that already included a popular Thai-language Facebook page.

“Until last year we outsourced our Thai-language content to a Japanese company,” the J. League’s Kei Koyama told From the Spot in late June. “But the kind of content that’s received well overseas is different from what works in Japan, so we wanted to develop a local content team to create such content more efficiently.

What kind of content succeeds overseas? Off-the-pitch culture such as mascots and stadiums, according to Koyama. Dramatic views of Mount Fuji from Shimizu S-Pulse’s IAI Stadium Nihondaira, taken back in February during the J1’s opening round, became a viral sensation.

The league’s two new international accounts on YouTube and Instagram, along with an English-language Twitter account that had been dormant since the end of the 2018 season, have each rushed out to over 20,000 followers thanks to a steady stream of engaging posts — and some help from the league’s international players.

“Most of the league’s Brazilian players are following our international accounts and other international players are joining them,” explained Koyama. “We’re communicating with them, and when they retweet content more fans from their country see it.”

Key to the league’s promotion strategy has been the presence of stars such as Vissel Kobe captain Andres Iniesta and Consadole Sapporo midfielder Chanathip, who have raised the competition’s profile globally and in Southeast Asia, respectively. But Koyama and his colleagues hope that international fans’ interest will extend beyond those two players.

“Chanathip and Iniesta may be the entry point for new fans, but when they see the J. League they’re surprised by the high level of play and impressed by the supporter culture and lots of young players,” said Koyama. “(Overseas fans) like that it’s a very competitive league and that any team has a chance to win the title.

“Recently (Consadole striker) Jay Bothroyd talked about how even though the J. League is such a high-level league, MLS and (Australia’s) A-League are more popular in Australia. But those leagues are shown in England and there’s more information about them available in English.

“After they discover the J. League it’s a question of whether there’s content for them. Now we have our international YouTube channel … and as fans find it hopefully it will spread.”

While Japan and South Korea are traditionally rivals on the pitch, Koyama said that his team had regularly consulted with the K-League, which opened its season in May with a dedicated English-language reporting team.

“They sent a delegation here last year; they were building a production center in Seoul to put together their broadcasts. They visited the J. League archives and we’ve exchanged a lot of information with them,” Koyama said.

“The coronavirus situation calmed down in South Korea first so they were able to start their season, and we’ve heard a lot about how that went … as well as their process for overseas broadcast sales.”

The J. League will hopefully be able to use that information to further enlarge its slate of international broadcasters — a process that began last December when Japanese marketing megafirm Dentsu acquired the global rights outside of Japan and China for a three-year period.

In Thailand, rights have shifted from TrueTV to local sports media giant Siamsport, with the country’s national broadcaster MCOT acquiring a sublicense that will see matches shown on free-to-air channels.

“Initially we were trying to increase the league’s exposure and raise its popularity, rather than profit from selling the broadcast rights,” said Koyama. “In Thailand we’ve finally entered the phase of being able to monetize those broadcast rights and it’s becoming a key part of our business plan that we want to spread to other countries.

“It’s important that we have balance in our business portfolio, not only generating income from domestic rights, but also earning revenue from overseas. The Premier League gets 40 to 50 percent of its income from overseas broadcasts; Germany’s Bundesliga is only at about 20 percent. The J. League is only getting a few percent; we want to get that above 10 percent soon.”

This week the league announced additional deals covering Eastern Europe, as well as Germany, Austria and Switzerland. They will join the United Kingdom and Australia, which had broadcasters lined up from the start of the season.

Compared to last season, when the league’s global feed was heavy on Iniesta, Chanathip and title-pursuing teams like Yokohama F. Marinos and FC Tokyo, international fans can expect a wider variety of matchups this year, with four matches per round being made available.

Koyama also hopes that the push by clubs to deliver more digital content during the coronavirus stoppage will eventually translate into more direct outreach to international fans at the club level, rather than just the league level.

“They’ve been creating more content than ever before and are starting to monetize. And the target audience doesn’t have to be limited to Japan,” Koyama said. “I don’t think they don’t want to do it, but they have to prioritize and don’t have the resources.

“If (the league) can create results with international outreach and monetize it, clubs will want to follow. It’s not going to happen across (all 56 clubs) immediately, but we can support their efforts.”

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