Home disadvantage?

Could Tokyo Verdy’s choice of home stadium be preventing the club from returning to the heights at which it once soared? (日本語版はこちらです:http://www.footballchannel.jp/2014/08/28/post48227/ )

Football Channel,  August 29th, 2014

Tokyo Verdy’s problems have been well-documented and there is not the time or space here to carry out a full assessment of the fall from grace which saw ‘Japan’s club’ plummet from the peak of the game to that of J2 also-rans.

The departure of key sponsors Yomiuri and then NTV were clearly principal factors in the club’s steady demise, and once money is taken away success, players, and ultimately fans also disappear.

The rebuilding process should thus begin in reverse order, and the team’s primary objective should be to concentrate on boosting its core fanbase and improving the atmosphere on matchdays. They are not helped in this objective by the fact that they play the majority of their home games in the preposterously over-sized Ajinomoto Stadium.

My first ever J.League game was a thoroughly depressing 0-0 bore-draw between Verdy and Avispa Fukuoka in Chofu back in 2009, played out in front of 4,183 people. That’s not such a bad crowd for the second division on a grey Sunday, but in a stadium with a capacity of 49,970 it makes for a bleak atmosphere.

A couple of weeks ago I saw another Verdy home game played in front of an almost identical crowd (4,219 for those counting), but this time it felt like I was watching a football match and that the home team had some kind of identity and people who cared about them. They consequently won the game, played against Mito Hollyhock at Ajinomoto Field in Nishigaoka, 1-0, and it seemed to me that the smaller venue (the stadium has a capacity of just 7,258) undoubtedly played a part in the win.

After the game I asked their coach Yasutoshi Miura if he agreed.

“The atmosphere has been created by a combination of the venue, the supporters, the sponsors who prop up the club – it’s an atmosphere created by all those concerned,” he said.

“Honestly speaking, the grass on the pitch here is kept wonderfully and, for the number of supporters who gather for us at the moment, the size of this stadium is very good.

Tokyo Verdy fans, Ajinomoto Field, Nishigaoka, Sunday 17th August, 2014

“Our home ground is Ajinomoto Stadium [though] and so it is our mission as a club to create the same atmosphere there.”

As the 49-year-old suggested that is not going to be especially easy, however, and the emptiness of the club’s designated home ground does seem to affect the players, with Verdy winning just one of their nine league games there in 2014. (Conversely, they’ve won both their J2 matches at Nishigaoka.)

But is it really as simple as that? I asked Dave Phillips, an MBA in Football Industries Candidate at the University of Liverpool and expert on J.League club finances, for his thoughts on Verdy. He wasn’t especially concerned about their economic situation, but did suggest that the current priority should be to get more fans through the turnstiles.

“They had the fifth highest income in J2 in 2013, and that’s bearing in mind that was a season in which both Gamba and Vissel made an appearance,” he said. “Advertising income and ticket income are stable if unspectacular – though the latter would be a result of stable, low attendances – and I’d be asking as a club what they can do to increase attendance. The answer is plenty, and cheaply (don’t copy Gifu or Matsumoto fully, because it won’t work, but some elements definitely will).”

Taking a closer look at the club’s finances and where money was being lost, Phillips arrived at the conclusion that hosting games at such an outsized venue was detrimental to the club.

“The clear issue seems to lie with game-related expenses and “top-team” operating expenses (not the same as remuneration), and, although I can’t be completely sure about this, a little bit of guesswork […] suggests to me game related expenses are the costs of matchdays, and the top team operating expenses are training facility costs.  Only Sapporo, as a percentage of their expenditure, spend a greater amount of what’s really “dead money” on these two areas – spending 30% suggests a huge amount of wastage.”

2013 JLeague 2 Revenue Distribution_Graphic Courtesy of Dave Phillips 2013 JLeague Division 2 Game Related and Top Team Expenses Percentages_Graphic Courtesy of Dave Phillips

Interestingly, a comparison with the costs Consadole accrue using Sapporo Dome was also offered by a source at Verdy by way of a partial defence of their use of Ajista. They did also reveal that efforts have been – and, from what I could gather, are still being – carried out to find a more suitable venue (including the stadiums set to be revamped or constructed for the 2020 Olympics), but suggested that abandoning Ajista would be a little tricky, with the ongoing relationship with the stadium described as “delicate”.

They moved there at the time of the change from Verdy Kawasaki to Tokyo Verdy for the 2001 season, and started well, beating Kashima Antlers 2-1 in front of 30,930 fans. Attendances and results have gone downhill since then though, and the average now sits around the 5,500 mark.

While there is no legal or official obligation for them to play games there – the J.League merely insists that clubs designate one stadium capable of hosting at least 80% of their home games, with fixtures technically only allowed to be moved if the allocated ground is otherwise in use – the fact that the association with Ajista dates so far back is – in true Japanese business style – I assume what makes it tricky to sever the ties.

The club also cites a return to J1 as an objective though, and last time they were in the top flight they averaged around 15,000 fans – the required capacity for J1 teams’ home grounds. A return to the first division doesn’t look to be on the cards for Verdy any time soon, however, and if they keep losing unnecessary money by hosting games at Ajista and continue to tread water in J2 as a result then it would surely make sense to burn those bridges.

A move to Nishigaoka would, admittedly, require the J.League to relax its capacity rules. J2 clubs are currently required to have at least 10,000 seats but attendances rarely get into five figures – and when they do it’s usually the likes of Consadole, Matsumoto Yamaga, or relegated giants like Gamba Osaka who draw the crowds.

Just six of Verdy’s games in 2013 attracted more supporters than would fit into Nishigaoka – the same number of fixtures the club are scheduled to play away from Ajista this season (also hosting at Komazawa Stadium and National Stadium). Why not reverse that, play all home games at Nishigaoka, and save Ajista for the bigger games? The results on the pitch seem to suggest it would be beneficial and, ultimately, they would also improve off it as well.


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