Saturday, November 11, 2006

Why the J-League Disappeared from Today's Yomiuri

With five games left in the J-League regular season, last year's runner-up Urawa Reds are barely three points, or just one win, ahead of last year's champions (by a single point) Osaka Gamba and four points (a win and a tie) ahead of the upstart Kawasaki Frontale. Reds fans pay good money routinely pack the 63,700-capacity Saitama Stadium, where the Reds play the bulk of its home games, and make away games in the Kanto area look like home games. The Gamba and Frontale do not come close in terms of fan base, but recent successes are bringing more fans to their games as well.

So, it looks like yet another thrilling finish to the J-League season, and today being game day…

there is absolutely nothing in the Yomiuri, not even the standings, nothing, except a small chart giving information on the national soccer numbers game. Headlining the sports pages instead are yesterday's second round baseball games in the three-nation plus one-region (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and China) Konami Cup Asia Series. One game, which pitted the Japanese champion Nippon Ham Fighters against Taiwan's La New Tigers, drew an officially announced crowd of 11,038; the other, where the South Korean champion beat up on a Chinese all-star team, drew 2,024. Almost as much space (but with a black-and-white photo) was given to the prospective sale of negotiating rights to a Japanese pitcher (and no, not Matsuzaka) to the highest major league bidder under Japanese baseball's so-called posting system.

So why the attention to a bunch of poorly-attended exhibition matches, and to what is basically a baseball non-event? (The pitcher in question is a star, but does not begin to match the superstar glitter of an Ichiro, Matsui (the Yankee one) and Matsuzaka, or even the androgynous, great-glove, weak-bat Shinjo.)

The Yomiuri sports pages have traditionally been an advertisement vehicle for the enormously profitable Yomiuri Giants. The Yomiuri newspaper, not to mention its daily virtual Giants fanzine Houchi, and the Giants grew together as circulation fed the fan base and vice versa. Success bred success as top money, top exposure brought the top players to the Giants fold. Unfortunately, the Giants have fallen on hard times in recent years, and their sell-out announcements are beginning to have that New York Knicks, yeah, right, feel to them. The Giants troubles are being compounded by Japanese stars and not-so-stars taking advantage of the relatively recent free agency system to play the peak years of their careers in the major leagues, sometimes at substantial financial sacrifice. TV ratings are down, and the Yomiuri-affiliate TV network that broadcasts Giants home games, Nihon Terebi is in a tizzy. So, anything that draws attention to baseball is welcome. Yomiuri, tellingly, sponsors the Asia Series.

Why the total neglect of soccer, though, the arguably second most popular spectator sport in Japan? Actually, Yomiuri owned the first truly professional soccer club in Japan, and early J-League powerhouse, Verdy. However, Yomiuri clashed with the J-League leadership. Yomiuri saw the J-League as a vehicle to promote its soccer team, most likely in a desire to build it up to the Giants of soccer. But to the J-League, Verdy was just one team in a league with a vision of its own. Yomiuri lost the tussle, lost interest, and sold the club to its affiliate. Verdy now languishes in the second division, eleven-team J-2.

There's news, there's, um, then there's sports news. So, next time you read the sports pages, try reading between the lines, or, in some cases, between the pages

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