It would be fair to say that more domestic and global eyeballs have drifted towards the J1 League since Spanish Fifa World Cup winners Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres signed for two of Japan’s top-flight soccer clubs.
Indeed, even when Iniesta was not in the matchday squad for Rakuten-backed side Vissel Kobe, the former Barcelona midfielder’s name alone was enough to see attendances for the team’s two away games against FC Tokyo and Urawa Reds soar to a combined 100,000, as both local and foreign fans splashed out on tickets in the hope that they might be able to catch a glimpse of one of modern soccer’s most elegant operators.
As far as soccer in Asia goes, the Chinese Super League (CSL) has more recently been viewed as the home of clubs with financial muscle and global superstars, but perhaps the tide is changing. Slowly but surely – and arguably less aggressively than its counterpart in China – J.League, the organising body for Japanese soccer’s top three tiers, has been building out its proposition, striking a balance between foreign and local talent in order to create a league with significant growth potential.
Established in 1992, J.League has increased from just ten clubs to 55, and is widely regarded as one of Asian club soccer’s more successful leagues. Based in one of the world’s technology hubs in Tokyo, J.League has also developed a reputation as a forward-thinking organisation, fuelled largely by a ten-year domestic broadcast deal with over-the-top (OTT) sports subscription service DAZN, as well as its esports offering, which was recently built out with the addition of a Pro Evolution Soccer (PES) competition in collaboration with Konami.
With all that in mind, SportsPro sat down with Takeyuki Oya, general manager of J.League’s international department, at Sportel Asia in Macau, to discuss how the organisation sees itself in the global soccer landscape, and how it is ramping up its international efforts to take the league to the next level.
The J.League was created to give fans a team belonging to their community
Generally speaking, how have you seen J.League and soccer in Japan grow over the past ten years?
Historically in Japan baseball was the only professional sport, but it was owned by big companies, so it was not really a community-based sport like many of those in England or Germany. So J.League started with the intention to be based in communities. The top baseball league only had 12 teams, but in Japan there are 47 prefectures, so we started to try to have at least one club in each prefecture matching the sporting culture in the community.
When we started J.League it was ten clubs, but now it has grown to 55. Our first chairman was targeting 100 clubs, so we’re still only halfway, but I think we are on the right track for our development.
There’s a sporting spotlight on Japan at the moment with this year’s Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Do you think J.League can benefit from the exposure of those global events?
Right now more Japanese companies are interested in investing in sports. Previously in Japan sport was like PE – something you do in school. So when you graduated from school you wouldn’t do sport anymore. But now sport is more cultural and rooted in community, and the government and companies are becoming more aggressive [in their approach to sport]. At the moment their target is the Olympics, so hopefully after the Olympics their passion still remains for sport, and hopefully J.League is one of those sports that they still want to invest in.
You’re in the third year of your broadcast deal with DAZN. What impact has that partnership had so far?
It was a big step because we were going from traditional broadcast to OTT, and I think it was the first case in the world where the main broadcaster [for a soccer league] is an OTT platform.
Secondly, DAZN was the first foreign investment company that secured a big deal in Japanese sports, so there was a big impact on the entire Japanese sports industry. I think they invested more than our valuation, but they saw our potential. The partnership being ten years is also important because it allows us to think longer term.
Of course, for us, going to OTT is big news, but we also started to do our own production. Before it was done by the broadcasters, so we didn’t own the rights, but then with the investment coming from DAZN we started producing ourselves, and DAZN has rich experience from Europe, so they were able to advise us on coming up with our own style. So the quality of the live feed is now also improved, and we own the rights, so that means we can also clip our own content to use on social media.
In what other ways has J.League changed its approach to digital media in the past few years?
We also started to invest in a marketing database similar to American sports. Before all the consumer data was controlled by each club, but now we try to take all the clubs’ consumer data and put it into one marketing database. So we produce our own application, and we have all the consumers’ data so we can do direct marketing to them. We also provide this data – not only the data but how to use the data – to all the clubs, so now this platform has more than one million IDs. We also connect with DAZN’s data, so that we can visualise the behaviour of our consumers that way.
J.League is still a relatively young soccer organisation. How are you trying to gain more international exposure for the league?
We started our Asian strategy in 2012, because in 2011 we had a big earthquake that affected our league and also people’s behaviour, so our attendance went down and the whole economy was struggling. So at that point, in Asia, we were not doing well.
We discussed internally what we needed to do to go to the next level, considering that the Japanese economy was going down and the population was not going up anymore. So we decided that [other parts of] Asia was our next market, because the passion for football is greater than it is in Japan, the population was going up, and also the economy. At the time, there were many Japanese players playing in these countries – there were many Japanese players playing in Thailand and also many in Singapore - so in the football industry there was a respect for Japanese football. So we realised that kind of relationship was something we could utilise, and we started going into Asia.
We found that there was a big opportunity for growth, and there were a number of talented players who may be able to play in J.League. Usually Japanese clubs go for Korean or Brazilian players, and for these players it is always challenging for them to play in a new league with a new culture.
So we’ve been trying to bring Thai players to Japan, and now there are five Thai players playing in J.League, with three of them being the national team’s star players. Now their level is improving, so we think of J.League as a level in between Thailand and European football, so it’s a good opportunity for them to step up, and we kind of open up the gate for them. So now more players want to come to Japan, our exposure in Thailand is going up, and our marketing there is very strong. We want to widen this opportunity more and more, but also transfer this model to other countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia.
How important is the presence of global stars such as Andres Iniesta and Fernando Torres for growing the J.League’s global profile?
Acquiring these players wasn’t really the league’s initiative, it was the clubs’, but of course it is giving J.League more worldwide attention. So we are creating more and more English content, especially on Facebook, and we are also working to produce our news stories that are available to global broadcasters.
Now we can position ourselves as the league where the new, young Asian generation is coming in, but also where the world’s top level is also coming in. So the world is now present in J.League – it’s not only Europe, but also Brazilian players and South Korean players, and we maintain a high quality of play.
The J.League has drawn an increasing number of big-name stars in recent years
Do you also view your friendly fixtures against visiting European teams as another key to introducing the J.League and its clubs to a wider audience?
Our season starts from the end of February and runs until December, which makes it quite hard to have a summer break. Two years ago we opened up our summer break so that our clubs can play a pre-season match against a European club. While the match is actually organised by the league, the champion of the previous J1 League season plays the big European team.
The purpose of opening up the summer break is to give our clubs more chances to play top level, but the game will be organised by the league to try to maximise exposure both in Japan and globally.
Given that many European soccer clubs are waking up to the commercial opportunities in Asia, do you find that you’re also competing with them for the attention of your fans?
Yes, we are always competing. I think B2B is more serious, because now companies are interested in Japan, but they are also interested in Asia and worldwide, so they are looking for the brand that is stronger in this area, like Manchester City and the Premier League. So I think the reason the European clubs are coming is not only for the market in Japan, but also to expose themselves to Asia. So in that sense they are competitors.
We can also work together, because in Japan there is still a low percentage of people interested in sport – less than 50, I think – so we need to create a new fan, which is not necessarily for the J.League, but for sports and football. For them it is easier to see someone like Lionel Messi rather than local Japanese players, so there is a La Liga representative in Japan who we often discuss and exchange ideas with. So they are competitors, but they are also our partners to try to raise awareness and interest in football in the country.
The European clubs are coming is not only for the market in Japan, but also to expose themselves to Asia. So in that sense they are competitors
How do you see J.League in relation to other soccer leagues around the world, and where would you like it to be in five years’ time?
The Japan national team has a vision to win the World Cup by 2050, and as part of the Japanese football family we want to contribute. So that means we need to raise our level of football. I think it’s very hard for J.League to be a top league in the world, but I think we are now the top league in Asia – a club from our league has won the AFC Champions League for consecutive years – but businesswise we also want to be number one.
The next step is challenging the European top five, maybe Italy or France, so this year we have opened up to allow five foreign players in a matchday squad, and clubs can now register an unlimited number of foreign players. So we have tried to open up to have better quality players in J.League, so then our Japanese players also need to try and compete at that level. So we want to have more global standard competitiveness in Japan so that our players can also develop more.
Newcastle's Yoshinori Muto is a to J.League export but his domestic league is now opening to develop more talent at home
The J.League will be discussing its partnership with DAZN onstage at SportsPro OTT Asia, with Martyn Jones, DAZN Group's executive vice president, Japan and Masaaki Kimura, J.League's senior managing director lifting the lid on the streaming service’s global OTT strategy. More information on event registration here.