02
Oct
13

Two-stage fright

The J.League’s decision to switch to a two-stage plus play-off season from 2015 is hard to understand, as is the way they went about announcing it…

週刊サッカーマガジン2013年10月1日

I think it’s fair to say that the J.League has made a bit of a mess of its restructuring process.

Back in June I defended the possible introduction of a straight two-stage season, essentially arguing that letting the two best teams – by the standards of such a set-up – face off in a final was not an especially unjust way to determine a champion.

The version which has been settled upon, though, is ludicrously long-winded, has still not been fully explained, and could serve to damage rather than help the league.

Fans are almost unanimously opposed to the new format, citing the confusing set-up and unfairness as their primary complaints, and players, too – both ex and current – have voiced disappointment and confusion at the plans.

One former J.Leaguer and Japan national team player joked to me that the league may have to rethink its current policy of displaying the “Fair Play” flag ahead of matches, and Yasuhito Endo, who has experience of the previous two-stage season, also expressed concerns about the incoming format’s ability to determine a just champion.

“You can’t argue with the fact that play-offs build excitement but the most fitting way to determine the champion is the total of points over the year, I think. Everyone considers them as the champion team,” he told me after Gamba Osaka’s 2-2 draw with Matsumoto Yamaga.

Fair enough?

“You can think about Oita coming up to J1 from 6th place [in J2] last year, so if the 5th or 6th placed team was to become the champion of the year it would be hard to agree with that.”

Tomoaki Makino is of a similar mind. “My opinion is that it’s not so good,” he said after Urawa Reds’ 1-1 draw with Ventforet Kofu. “The champion over the course of the year is the real champion so I have mixed feelings.”

I don’t doubt the J.League’s claim that something needed to be done to arrest worrying trends – average attendances fell by 1,636 and clubs’ income slumped on average by 299 million yen between 2008-12 – and having conducted discussions internally and with clubs regularly over the year and two months between June 2012 and August 2013 claims that it has quickly hashed out a plan are wide of the mark.

The fact that they didn’t think to consult directly with fans about the issue is baffling though – especially as they had the perfect opportunity to address that oversight back in June when supporters’ discontent was first aired. Instead of inviting them to JFA House to partake in discussions, however, they stumbled on regardless – although it wouldn’t surprise me if the ‘bye’ for the team with the most points over the season into the final final wasn’t shoehorned in at the eleventh hour to try and appease complaints about unfairness.

Urawa Reds fans protest, Kokuritsu, September 14th, 2013

Just how many fans will follow through with their threats to stop visiting the stadiums once the two-stage season begins is hard to say. While it may not result in a sudden dip in attendances I struggle to see how two-stages are better than one when it comes to attracting new fans though. The post season will almost certainly be sold out and provide excitement, but quite why casual fans will flock to grounds throughout the regular season is hard to fathom.

“I think they need to give more of an explanation to players, staff, and fans as to how two-stages will help to increase the excitement and help with the investment and money problems,” Endo said, before conceding, “But, well, it’s already been decided so there’s nothing we can do but accept it.”

That may not necessarily be the case, and if protests persist and the image of the J.League begins to suffer it may have to rethink.

If it does and still wants a change I would propose an East-West split. The top 5 teams from each region move into a championship league for the second half of the season, while the bottom four from each battle to avoid relegation. This would freshen up the competition (you wouldn’t necessarily play the same teams every season), as well as cutting down travel distances and making it easier for fans to attend games both home and away.

It’s still not perfect, but I won’t make the same mistake as the J.League; what do the fans think of that idea?


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