Jon Steele (@J2KantoBites) takes an occasional look at some of the ways in which the J.League does things slightly differently than other, more established professional divisions around the world.
1) The fixture list announcement
For football supporters everywhere, the day when your team’s new fixtures are revealed is a time of anticipation, excitement and (in some cases) stress. For newly-promoted clubs, fans eagerly scan the list of names and venues to find out when they’ll be able to visit unfamiliar, iconic stadiums, and watch their team test themselves against more illustrious, talented opponents. If your side has just been relegated, you might start plotting an immediate return to the higher echelons just by poring over a calendar that is suddenly sprinkled with crucial dates. Even if the club you support is in the same division as last season, the fixture list becomes the framework that dominates your schedule for the next nine months, dictating when you might take time off from work, possible destinations for family holidays, or if a wedding invitation can be accepted or declined.
J.League supporters are no different when it comes to the announcement of new fixtures every year. However, the league announces its fixtures in a somewhat unorthodox (and rather unwieldy) fashion. Basically, J.League fans have to look out for three crucial fixture release dates, rather than one. Let’s look at the forthcoming season as an example. On Wednesday, 13th January, the opening home games for all J.League teams were revealed. The rest of the matches were kept under wraps for a further two weeks, before finally being announced on Thursday, 28th January. The excitement (or frustration) doesn’t end there though. For the final two months of the season, the J.League doesn’t announce kick-off times until late summer (July or August). For instance, we know that JEF United will host Renofa Yamaguchi in a J2 game on Sunday, 18th September, but we won’t know what time that game starts for another five or six months.
This staggering of fixture information might not be unique to Japan, but it is certainly unusual when compared to most leagues. For example, the English, Italian and Spanish leagues release their fixtures in full (in keeping with national stereotypes, the Italians and the Spanish are usually slower than their English counterparts). So why does the J.League do things this way? I suspect that the reason for announcing a team’s opening home game separately is a purely commercial one. It attracts some media attention, and allows the home side to spend a full two weeks on marketing that specific fixture with posters, targeted emails and so on. For example, J2 new boys Machida Zelvia were no doubt delighted to be given a blockbusting home opener against Cerezo Osaka, and grateful to have some much sought after time to promote the game without the ‘noise’ of a full fixture list to distract from their ‘message’.
I’m less confident about the reasons for keeping the end-of-season kick-off times secret. I assume that someone, somewhere already knows the relevant information. Japanese society is too punctual (and laborious) for me to realistically believe that the kick-off times for all these games are still ‘up in the air’. I suppose there might be question marks over some matches, but why not just announce them with a placeholder time (15:00?) and amend it later? Your guess is as good as mine.
My personal preference would be for the J.League to go a bit more ‘continental’ (I’m English, so that means ‘European’) in this department in future. I wish that on a specific date (1st January? 1st February?), they’d just have a massive fixture blowout with all the information a match-going fan needs (date, stadium, kick-off time). As a full-time worker with a young family, I (like many others) want as much advance notice as possible before making plans to attend a game. The kick-off time in particular makes a big difference in terms of travel plans, and cost.
That’s not to say that the ‘European model’ is perfect, especially in recent years. For instance, although the English Premier League announces all its fixtures in one fell swoop, dates and kick-off times are frequently altered at short notice to accommodate TV broadcasting, European commitments, or the somewhat Orwellian-sounding ‘police advice’. This means that a game with a scheduled kick-off time of 15:00 on a Saturday could end up being played on a Friday night, anytime over the weekend, or even Monday night. Speaking as someone who tries to attend as many Premier League games as possible when I go back to the UK, this can cause some real headaches when booking plane tickets and making other travel plans.
In Spain too, fixtures are often only finalized two weeks before they are played. Basically, you might know that Barcelona are hosting Sevilla ‘at the weekend’, but you’d have to keep checking to find out whether the game was on Saturday or Sunday, and at what time. Little wonder that there’s little tradition of supporters traveling to away games there.
When I first came to Japan and got interested in the J.League, I found the way that fixture information was handled to be obtuse and annoying. However, there’s no ‘perfect’ way to disseminate this key information. The league organizers must have their reasons for handling fixture announcements the way they do, and ultimately supporters, clubs and journalists get all the information they need. Overall, it’s just another example of the J.League being ‘the same, but different’ when compared to other leagues around the world. I just hope that JEF United game against Yamaguchi isn’t a 13:00 kick-off (my least favourite kind).
Jon Steele has been living in Japan, and watching the J.League, for over ten years. He’s spent a lot of that time watching Yokohama FC, so you’ll understand if he breaks down uncontrollably at times.