I recently interviewed New York Red Bulls’ Kosuke Kimura – a Japanese player who has carved out a career for himself in America – and during our conversation I wondered why there is no level of co-operation between the J.League and the MLS. Those thoughts turned into my first fortnightly column for the website ‘Football Channel’ (you can read the Japanese version here: http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/01/29/post23635/)…
Evolution has been a key word for the J.League since its inception in 1993, and especially over the last 12 months as the division looks to address issues both in and out of its stadiums.
It looks increasingly as if the domestic league has reached a plateau in popularity though, and stagnating attendances and financial pressures have resulted in a return to the much-derided two-stage system being penciled in.
The leveling out of interest in the J.League does not entirely surprise me, and there was always going to be a point at which the lines on the graph stopped going up. Large strides can be made when moving from zero to 50, but subsequent improvements on the way to 100 are always more difficult to make.
Japan is undoubtedly a football country now, and as more and more players establish themselves in Europe that trend shows no signs of reversing. I have my doubts as to how many more fans can be created domestically for the national leagues though.
J3 will be introduced this season but promotion for and interest in the third tier is muted to say the least. The average attendance in J2 in 2013 sat around the 6,500 mark, and it would be surprising if J3 manages to get even halfway there.
Of course, in professional sport these days bums on seats in the stadiums is often not the principal form of income, and as the English Premier League has shown sponsorship and TV rights are the most productive way to fill the coffers – and not just domestically.
The J.League is often described as the ‘Premier League of Asia’ and it should be doing more to take advantage of that status. Tentative steps are being taken, and as well as games being shown live on various Asian, European, and North American channels efforts are being made to bring big names from South East Asia to Japan.
This, again as shown in the multinational Premier League, is a fantastic way to increase interest overseas. Diego Forlan’s arrival at Cerezo Osaka is also a fantastic coup which will give the competition a much-needed shot in the arm and potentially convince other quality players that Japan is a viable option.
One avenue I am constantly surprised the J.League doesn’t explore though is more co-operation with the American MLS.
Both divisions were established around the same time (the MLS started in its current guise in 1996 having been founded three years previously as part of the US bid for the 1994 World Cup), had to establish themselves in countries with already-existing national sports, and have seasons which run from March to December.
A tie-up would be mutually beneficial in a number of ways, and as well as enabling ideas on marketing and expansion to be shared movement of players between the two leagues would also help both on and off the pitch. Football is now the third-most attended sport in the US – surprisingly ahead of both ice-hockey and basketball – and has the 8th highest average attendance of football leagues around the world. The J.League doesn’t currently make the top 10.
I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Kosuke Kimura of the New York Red Bulls, and as the first Japanese player to appear in the MLS – and also presently the only one under contract in the States – he is in the perfect position to assess the merits of more co-operation.
“In the US it’s all about the professionalism,” the former Kawasaki Frontale youth-teamer said. [The level of] MLS is getting higher and at the same time everything they try to do is to make everything so professional. The US do that always. We had so many people trying out last year for New York and they couldn’t believe our facilities.
“There’s some players that come from the J.League to the US to play but there’s not many MLS players going to the J.League,” he continued. “I think the reason is that both leagues think it’s about the same level. I think when it comes to playing in some ways J.League is better. When it comes to physicality and speed maybe the US is better.”
Kimura – who travelled to America on his own initiative at the age of 18 and spent 4 years playing for and studying at Western Illinois University before being picked in the 2007 draft by Colorado Rapids – thinks an underlying competitiveness is part of the reason that there are not more lines of communication across the Pacific.
“The leagues started about the same time and they have this kind of rival thing going on, I think,” the 29-year-old said. “No-one says it but I think there’s something going on. But they have so many similarities. If they do something together I think it will help both ways.”
The Premier League has achieved its status as the division not so much of England but the world, and while the J.League can never hope to compete on that level a little more interaction with the international football community can only help. A relationship with the MLS would be a great place to start.