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WORLD CUP '94 / 40 DAYS AND COUNTING : Getting a Kick Start : Japan Is Showing the United States How It's Done With the Success of Soccer's J-League

May 08, 1994|GRAHAME L. JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Here's a quick question to test your knowledge of international sports:

How many applied for tickets to the opening match of the inaugural season in Japan's professional soccer league--800? 8,000? 800,000?

The third figure is correct.

Here's a quick question to test your knowledge of American sports:

How many will apply for tickets to the opening match of the inaugural season of Major League Soccer, the United States' latest effort to launch a professional soccer league--800? 8,000?

The first figure is as likely to be correct as the latter.

The J-League, as Japan's newest sports venture is called, will be one year old next Sunday. Major League Soccer is expected to make its debut one year from now.

But, in the opinion of many observers, rather than being separated by only a couple of years, the two leagues already are light years apart.

Soccer has conquered Japan, or at least a good portion of it, in only 12 months. The sport is now the hottest ticket in town, every bit as popular as baseball or sumo wrestling. Companies such as Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi and others are pouring tens of millions of dollars into soccer. The media is giving it extensive coverage.

How was all this accomplished and can the same formula be followed by Major League Soccer? Probably not.

"They've done a wonderful job, but it's not something that we can package easily and bring back to the United States," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director/secretary general of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF).

The main obstacle, it appears, is cultural. What the Japanese government, industry and fans are willing to accept, the American government, industry and people are not. It's as simple as that.

Steinbrecher, along with Alan Rothenberg, chairman and chief executive officer of World Cup USA 1994 and president of the USSF, traveled to Japan to study the J-League and see what lessons could be applied on this side of the Pacific.

What they learned is that it won't be that easy. One reason is contained in this quote from Sauburo Kawabuchi, chairman of the J-League:

"We expect to lose $250 million in the first five years," he said without so much as blinking an eye.

In difficult economic times, that would seem a staggering statement to make, but the Japanese take a different view of such things. Their goals are much different than quick profits.

"The Japanese are very long-term thinkers," Steinbrecher said. "All this (investment in professional soccer) is part of an integrated plan to stage the World Cup in 2002, when they can showcase Japan."

So, unlike the United States, which was awarded this summer's World Cup on condition--or at least in the sincere belief--that a professional league would be established, Japan is going about it in a more logical manner. It has established a professional league in the hope of being awarded the World Cup.

After months, indeed years, of planning and promotion, the J-League was launched on May 15, 1993.

It was a spectacular opening night. The Olympic Stadium in Tokyo was packed to the rafters. Celebrities were everywhere. Politicians rubbed elbows with entertainers and sports figures, including Pele and, in a diplomatic bow to baseball, Sadaharu Oh, Japan's greatest baseball player.

A spectacular laser, fireworks and music show preceded the first match, between Yokohama Marinos and Yomiuri Nippon. The entire event was televised live nationwide. It was all a huge success.

Seven months later, the same could be said for the entire season. One million fans had passed through the turnstiles within the first month. Sold-out stadiums were commonplace. Soccer quickly earned its place alongside baseball in terms of attendance and prime-time television coverage. It was more than a novelty, it was an escape from conformity. It was bright, it was colorful, it was lively.

Whereas baseball obeyed the do-what-the-coach-tells-you ethic of an earlier era, soccer allowed and indeed encouraged freedom of expression, both in appearance and in the game itself. By season's end, both Kawabuchi and the media were hailing the J-League's success.

"It was a great success," Kawabuchi said. "Everything turned out for the best. I think the Japanese have understood for the first time that soccer is an aggressive, speedy and colorful sport."

Japan's best-selling newspaper, Yomiuri Shimbun, made it official in an editorial.

"The league has exceeded all expectations," the newspaper said. "There were full houses everywhere. Its popularity was due to a feeling that the game was new and exciting, to attacking teams, strong foreign players and fast play.

"Now, sports typical of Japan are not just sumo and baseball. We can say that soccer has taken root in the national culture."

But how?

Steinbrecher believes it was done by targeting a specific audience and by being willing, with some government prodding, to invest millions in making it a commercially viable venture.

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