It’s been less than three weeks since J. League teams played their first “remote matches,” the phrase chosen by the Japan Top League Alliance to represent games held behind closed doors as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
With players back on the pitch and fans back in the stands, it’s already time to take stock in what we’ve learned about how the league, its clubs and fans have responded to the various developments on the long road from February’s suspension to this month’s top-flight resumption.
J. League emerges as leader
Throughout much of its 27 years, the J. League has played second fiddle to Nippon Professional Baseball in the Japanese sporting zeitgeist. But throughout this process, the league has shown remarkable leadership — from chairman Mitsuru Murai’s decision to suspend competitions in late February and the formation of an unprecedented joint task force with NPB, to transparency regarding the league’s safety protocols and resumption timetables.
The public has been able to keep up with ever-evolving guidelines through the league’s regular news conferences, which have gone so smoothly that J. League officials have also managed the Zoom meets for the task force and joint functions with other leagues.
The J. League has also been careful to work with stakeholders and local municipalities ahead of the restart, with players also pledging their support — in sharp contrast to American pro leagues, where a number of players have cited health concerns in their decisions to pull out of their respective competitions.
So far, everything seems to have gone according to plan. The league has conducted thousands of tests — on players, coaches, staff and referees — and none have come up positive, meaning no new infections since Nagoya Grampus’ Mitch Langerak and Mu Kanazaki were hit with the virus back in early June.
The league has also worked to protect the financial security of its membership, establishing a line of credit with several major banks, lobbying the government to win a key ruling on tax relief for sponsors and launching a fund for public donations earlier this week.
Clubs embrace digital content
In a country where sports teams have been slower than their international peers in terms of adopting digital media as a core part of their marketing strategies, the pandemic has served as a wake-up call.
Over four months without any games to speak of, J. League clubs have rapidly refocused their efforts on new and innovative — for Japan, at least — types of content, including videos produced within the limits of lockdowns that have kept players and staff working from home as well as a plethora of livestreams.
As Zoom news conferences became the norm across the sport, stock virtual backgrounds were soon replaced by club logos and eventually by the kind of sponsor boards regularly seen behind players and coaches after the match, as clubs became keenly aware that screenshots of the pressers were being used on the web and in print.
Over time, teams took more steps to monetize their video content and incorporate sponsor activation. Some have even gone the direct route, using services such as YouTube and a domestic streaming app called Player! to directly solicit donations from fans during training matches and news conferences.
And at the closed-door remote matches, several clubs experimented with crowdsourced apps such as Remote Cheerer that allowed fans to press buttons on their phones corresponding to prerecorded cheers being played in the stadium.
Even as fans are allowed to return to stadiums in greater numbers, don’t expect these digital initiatives to lose steam anytime soon — especially if an increase in infections results in another clampdown on attendance.
Most fans are cooperative …
While the resumption of professional sports in other countries has become a contentious and even political issue, in Japan the attitude has been less “hurry up” and more “we’re here whenever you’re ready.”
At no point during the hiatus was there pressure for the J. League to resume, and fans readily contributed to various charity efforts set up by the clubs — as well as crowdfunding campaigns established to help clubs such as Kashima Antlers overcome heavy financial losses.
Those in the stadiums have largely followed rules designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus — even if they have prevented supporters from creating the intense matchday atmospheres the league has become famous for. With no flags, songs or chants allowed, fans have instead resorted to spontaneous bursts of applause for good plays, only occasionally vocalizing after a missed chance or a goal.
Fans have even refrained from drinking during the match — an easier task with alcohol sales currently prohibited at stadiums — and waited to lower the masks and take drinks only when referees have whistled for the players to take their own water breaks.
It remains to be seen how long fans will go along with the rules, especially beginning next month when teams may be permitted to allow up to half of their home stadium’s capacity.
Will up to 36,000 Yokohama F. Marinos supporters really be able to stay composed? It’s hard to say over the long term. But it’s likely that fans would rather watch soccer in silence than from home.
… But some grudges remain
Of course, not every team’s supporters have been as cooperative.
After a very public battle between Urawa chairman Yoichi Tachibana and the J. League over a decision by the league’s executive committee not to allow the display of fan-made banners during remote matches, Urawa’s notorious active support demonstrated their disapproval in their first game back in Saitama Stadium.
Before their team’s game on Sunday against Kashima Antlers, Reds supporters hung up a banner reading “Thank you for approving these banners one week late. Don’t kill football culture with your vague rules,” prompting criticism from fans of other teams.
Even more troubling was the amount of whistling, chair-striking and cheering that could be heard during Urawa’s 1-0 win over Kashima Antlers, prompting strong criticism from retired defender Daisuke Nasu.
“You can’t whistle or chant,” Nasu said on his YouTube channel. “The players and team aren’t happy to hear any of it.
“A few months ago we weren’t able to play soccer at all. Then we progressed to playing in empty stadiums and finally allowing 5,000 fans in. Those fans represent everyone and if they don’t follow the rules, this isn’t going to help anyone.”
During a Thursday news conference, Murai expressed regret at the actions of the Reds fans, saying that “each and every fan needs to follow the league’s guidelines in order to prevent infections,” suggesting that fans who were creating a clear threat to the safety of others could be removed from the stadium.
As it seeks to stave off significant financial losses caused by a drop in attendance this season, Urawa — which has in the past swung between vociferously supporting its most radical fans and struggling to control them — cannot afford the public backlash that could build if those supporters continue to ignore the league’s safety guidelines.