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'J.League' Spells Success : Soccer Fast to Gain Business and Fan Appeal in Japan


URAWA, Japan — The suburban Tokyo stadium was packed with fans of the Urawa Red Diamonds professional soccer team. Some wore the hometown red. Others strung up a red-on-black banner marked with a white skull and crossbones and a message to the visiting Yokohama Marinos: "Welcome to RED HELL."

Each time the Red Diamonds attacked or scored a goal, the stadium erupted into a cheering, screaming frenzy.

Long an obscure sport here--with an even lower profile than in the United States--soccer has exploded on the national scene in an extraordinary wave of popularity, challenging the traditional national obsessions of sumo wrestling and baseball.

Now in the middle of its second season, the 12-team, Japan Professional Football League--known as the "J.League"--is also a remarkable financial success for many individual players and their teams' corporate sponsors.

Games are sold out long in advance. And flamboyant foreign and domestic soccer stars--having surpassed baseball stars--are ubiquitous in television, print and billboard advertisements for everything from sausages to long-distance telephone services.

Products licensed to carry J.League emblems range from windbreakers and accessories to Kodak film that comes with attached glossy souvenir photos of soccer stars.

Annual sales of items for which the league draws royalty payments are running at $1.5 billion. The total J.League-related market is boosted another $600 million by television broadcast fees, payments for the advertising in which players or logos appear, corporate sponsorships, food and beverages sold at games, ticket sales and other activities. All this is happening even though most of the league's stadiums can accommodate no more than 15,000 fans.

"The secret to the popularity of the J.League is merchandising," said Kazuki Sasaki, the J.League's public affairs manager. "We decided to copy the American model of sports business."

Promotion has been brilliant. But success came because the sport hit a responsive chord in younger Japanese attracted to its speed and freedom, which contrasts sharply with the stoic discipline of Japanese baseball and the quasi-religious rites of sumo wrestling. Soccer's emergence as a major national sport reflects the changing values of a generation that knows only affluence and wants something beyond hard work. The sport in turn seems capable of reinforcing new visions of how life should be lived.

The free spirit of Japanese soccer is symbolized by players like Kazuyoshi Miura of the Verdy Kawasaki team, a handsome star who after scoring displays his joy by performing what has become known as the "Kazu dance"--a comical arm-waving, prancing routine that fans love.

"Baseball players are the more serious type," commented Takuya Jinno, a player for the Yokohama Marinos. "There are lots of interesting soccer players. I guess it's because there's more freedom in soccer."

Among the most wildly popular players is Alcindo Sartori, 26, a Brazilian superstar who displays a luxurious cascade of shoulder-length hair, surrounding a prominent bald spot on the top of his head. He is a flashy player who never hides his emotions, and Japanese fans affectionately have nicknamed him "Kappa," after bald-domed river spirits of Japanese mythology.

Japan's top two wig makers realized almost simultaneously that a long-haired real-life kappa sports star could be an advertising treasure. Aderance Co. beat out its rival Art Nature in a bidding war for his services, snagging him with a reported $300,000 contract. The deal allowed him to doff the wig for games, maintaining his popular bald-pated image for sports fans.

"Baseball inherits long Japanese traditions like waend (harmony) or bushido (the samurai way)," said Yutaka Hosokawa, 30, a telephone company employee and soccer fan. "It's characterized by attitudes of 'Don't stick out. Don't talk. Get results.' Soccer doesn't have that, because it was born just last year . . . Alcindo is doing well in games. He's scoring goals. . . . So they don't tell him, 'Live modestly, don't be so flashy.' "

Far from trying to crush individualism and force players into a mold, J.League management seems to exult in the creation of a new sports culture for Japan.

J.League chairman Saburo Kawabuchi, in a speech to the Foreign Correspondents Club, compared baseball to kabuki , a form of Japanese drama with pauses between scenes. Soccer, he noted, is more like rock-and-roll.

Soccer players "can have long hair or pierced ears," Sasaki said. "Young people look up to them because they are looking for freedom."

Sasaki added, however, that the audience last year "was more individualistic, like Americans." He lamented that some spectators at this year's games have started to follow informal cheerleaders:"When they lift their left hand, they follow. When they lift their right hand, they follow." He viewed this as a sign that deep-rooted traditions may corrode even the free spirit of soccer.

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