J. League officials on Tuesday expressed optimism that the government’s decision to end emergency measures across the country would allow clubs to admit more fans into stadiums over the final two months of the season, but admitted that a full return to pre-pandemic crowds and atmospheres may be impossible this year.
While soccer games in prefectures under states of emergency have been restricted to maximum crowds of 5,000, that limit will be lifted to 50% of venue capacity — with a cap of 10,000 for stadiums that can accommodate more than 20,000 fans — for a one-month period under transitional rules.
As of last weekend’s games, average attendance in this season’s first division stood at 5,611 per game — below 2020’s pandemic-impacted 5,796. The J1 achieved its largest-ever crowds in 2019, with average attendance of 20,751.
“We’re entering an important part of the season with the conclusion of the J. League … as well as the Levain Cup final approaching, so we want to look forward and make as much progress as we can,” Murai told a news conference on Tuesday following a meeting of the league’s board of directors.
The league has also obtained permission to trial the admission of fans above the applicable capacity limit so long as attendees submit proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test, something Murai said would be possible thanks to a government decision to allow the sale of antigen testing kits at pharmacies.
Murai, joined by NPB Commissioner Atsushi Saito, met the previous day with Yasutoshi Nishimura, the minister in charge of Japan’s coronavirus response. At a separate news conference on Tuesday, Nishimura said the J. League’s use of the “vaccination/test package” could begin with the Oct. 6 Levian Cup semifinal between Nagoya Grampus and FC Tokyo at Toyota Stadium in Aichi Prefecture.
Murai said he does not expect attendance to immediately rise above current limits even at games where the vaccination/test package is trialed, adding that clubs will need to establish a number of new procedures to accommodate fans with proof of vaccination.
“I think realistically at the start there will be lots of clubs that establish vaccinated seating sections within that 50% or 10,000-person limit,” he said.”In October there will be more of a focus on establishing new policies and evaluating their effectiveness.”
Clubs will also face logistical hurdles when it comes to processing the vaccine/test packages. Unlike many Western nations, Japan is yet to adopt a digital platform for coronavirus-related documentation, meaning that attendees would be required to carry original paper records that would have to be manually checked upon entry.
“Ideally you’d have a smartphone app that would allow for quick verification, but right now fans only have access to the original vaccination sheet,” Murai said. “We need to define what’s acceptable as proof of vaccination or a negative test and figure out how to process them at the stadium without causing crowding or long waits.”
Murai suggested that rules prohibiting active support such as cheering, singing and flag-waving — intended to prevent the creation and dispersal of coronavirus-carrying particles — may remain in place through the end of the 2021 campaign, with the league for now focused on increasing the number of spectators.
“It’s a step-by-step process,” he said. “There’s a lot of regulations and they cover a wide range of issues, so we want to focus on doing our best with the vaccination/test package.
“This season we don’t expect we’re going to get to 2019 levels, with 100% capacity and fans able to take off their masks and cheer. From an attendance perspective, I think getting to 60-70% capacity by the end of the season would be a good result for us, but right now we haven’t set a target.”
One major opportunity to evaluate new admission policies for vaccinated fans could come in the form of the Oct. 30 Levain Cup final at Saitama Stadium. The league used the 2020 final, which took place at Tokyo’s National Stadium on Jan. 3, to conduct a number of studies on infection prevention measures in cooperation with the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST).
“First we need to understand what the government’s regulations will be at that time and confirm our policies for that game,” Murai said. “Just as we did last year, we want to work with AIST to evaluate our countermeasures and provide that evidence to the public.”
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