What American Soccer Can Learn from Japan

Nick Kosar is back with his second Footiebusiness guest post.  Nick is a strategic marketing executive who was managing editor of Far East Traveler magazine in Tokyo before returning to the States to follow the newly inaugurated Major League Soccer. He’s still trying to figure out which J. League team to root for. Follow Nick on Twitter: @nakosar.  Nick’s firsts post can be found here.

Nick takes a long look at the soccer model in Japan and applies it to the States.  Now I am (repeatedly) on the record stating that pro/rel will never happen in the US, but Nick takes a good look at the success of that model in Japan along with an array of other initiates that have worked in the Land of the Rising Sun.  There are some parallels between US and Japan that are worth close examination.  Thanks again to Nick.

In the sporting universe, you can market players (e.g., Beckham, Henry, Wondo, DeRo), a team, or the sport itself. Of course, all three of these go hand in hand – they are part of a whole. But today I’ll focus on the strategic appeal and marketing of the sport itself:  Soccer in North America. And rather than pulling ideas from traditional soccer countries like England or Brazil, we’ll investigate from a different vantage point: Japan.

Japanese and North American Soccer: The Similarities

Japan, like North America, received the game of soccer by the early 20th century. Like the United States with its baseball and growing love of (American) football a hundred years ago, Japan had its sumo and a growing fascination with yakyu, or baseball. By the end of the 20th century, Japan retooled its existing soccer system into a brand new league: the J. League.

The J. League experienced a challenge similar to Major League Soccer a few years after its inauguration: it was forced to contract in the late 1990s before growing again in the 2000s. And, like MLS, Japanese soccer enjoys some long-term opportunities vis-à-vis other sports. Sumo, the national sport, has been embarrassed in recent years by match-fixing scandals, losing credibility and audience numbers. This experience is not unlike the experience in North America: the bruising that baseball received due to steroid scandals; hockey and basketball due to their labor disputes; and American football’s growing concussion and long-term injury problem. World Series television viewership is half of what it was 20 years ago, and American football is beset with ex-player injury lawsuits and parental concerns about their kids playing what is inherently a violent game.

Let Little Hello Kitty Fight It Out with Godzilla

So, while the experiences on both sides of the Pacific are eerily similar, there are some differences. J. League’s organizers have been very bold in trying to advance soccer as a leading sport in the country. Key to the J. League’s ambition is its 2004 “Hundred Year Plan,” borne out of soccer’s difficulties in Japan in the late 1990s. A key goal of the Plan is to spread the development of soccer to every corner of the country, from professional leagues down to amateur leagues.

As a foreshadowing of what was to come under the Plan, the J. League decided to create a lower “J2” league in 1999 to go along with the top league, now called “J1”. With this, they also instituted promotion and relegation. One result? Better marketing opportunities for the sport, with fans’ passion being upped a notch, and relegation battles being contested and publicized as much as championships. Take the example of Kashiwa Reysol (a team with 70-year-old roots as Hitachi’s corporate team, located in Chiba, roughly east of the capital city), which was relegated from J1 in the 2009 season yet was promoted back the next year. Incredibly, Kashiwa won the J1 championship in 2011. That’s what dreams are made of – the key reason people follow sports. Nothing like it exists in North American sport.

This promotion/relegation idea is alive and growing in North American soccer circles. If soccer in North America adopted an approach similar to the J. League, then in addition to the marketing potential of the MLS Cup, the MLS Playoffs, the Supporters Shield, and the US Open Cup, we would add yet another tantalizing and unique concept to the sports scene here: the Avoid-Relegation Scrap.

The Avoid-Relegation Scrap would be a true market differentiator for soccer in the crowded American sports market. Unlike any other North American sport, the idea of relegation/survival could captivate fans on this side of the Pacific too. It is generally understood that the American economy is more “laissez-faire” (i.e., less regulated) than other economies – for example, it is easier to fire someone from their job in the United States than in Europe. Like our more free-wheeling, fire-your-employees-at-will employment system, subjecting sports teams to the ravages of the promotion/relegation system (i.e., a freer market) would be uniquely American. Any American would be captivated by the idea of a AAA minor league baseball team being able to play at Fenway or Yankee Stadium after being promoted. It’s a tough leap to make for MLS, but they did it in Japan.

Taking Soccer to the Rice Paddies

Any visitor to Tokyo will tell you that you’ll never find a rice paddy in this huge concrete-and-glass metropolis. A key part of the Hundred Year Plan, introduced in 2004, is what I might call the “grass roots” movement. In other words, promoting the development of soccer clubs and fan support throughout the country, to every small city, town, and village – i.e., to where the rice paddies are.

At the end of the 1998 season, a relegation “playoff” was created in the J. League, with two teams joining the newly created J2 league and the size of J1 shrinking from 18 teams to 16. One goal in creating J2 was to allow teams that couldn’t afford the financial burdens of maintaining a J1 team to perform better in the lower league. Sponsors’ investment commitments would be lower in J2, as would the salaries of players. Another goal was an “upward” movement: giving smaller teams from the third-tier Japan Football League (a hybrid amateur/semi-professional league) the opportunity to move into the professional ranks of J2 by meeting various financial and technical requirements. The result: encouraging the development of more professional soccer teams throughout the country. The model is similar to MLS’s financially cautious business plan vis-à-vis the old NASL, albeit at a lower-league level. North America can surely move toward such a multi-league model.

Bottom Line: We Don’t Need More Cowbell, Just More Derbies

Soccer fans understand that “derby” = “rivalry.” The fact is, North American soccer could use a lot more of them – a derby is a marketing and public relations dream. And a successful rivalry does not have to be between teams in the same league. With cup matches, teams from different leagues can enjoy the mutual vitriol. Here again, Japan is a great model.

For example, two J1 teams occupy the “birthplace” of soccer in Japan, in the Shizuoka region: Jubilo Iwata and Shimizu S-Pulse. In the 1999 season, J1 hit a public relations jackpot: the J1 league’s championship match was contested between these two Shizuoka Derby rivals.

In Yokohama, the prosperous port city just south of Tokyo, the vitriol between the Yokohama Flugels and the larger Yokohama Marinos reached a fever pitch when the league disbanded the struggling Flugels in 1998 and folded them into their cross-town rivals, thus creating the “Yokohama F. Marinos.” It’s a weird name, yet an ever-present reminder of the bad blood between these two clubs. Just five years after the formation of the J. League, fierce fan loyalty to specific teams already had been sealed. Flugels fans and some players refused to countenance such a change of allegiance and created Yokohama FC, with the brand-new club crest naturally sporting a phoenix. Yokohama FC continues to float between J1 and J2, but the fan commitment and bad blood between these teams – a fitting symbol of the maturation of the sport in Japan – continues.

It’s time for our own Hundred Year Plan.