Soccer Scores a Goal in Japan and Proves Profitable to Boot

Article excerpt

Despite playing host to the World Cup, America hasn't seemed to engender support for professional outdoor soccer. But in Japan, big business is getting behind the ball, netting some surprising results.

Cars, computer chips, camcorders and now corner kicks -- yet another arena in which Japanese businesses are outcompeting their American counterparts. While organizers here struggle once again to create a market for professional soccer, Japanese corporations are reaping profits from a new league only in its second season.

The Nikkei Ryutsu Shimbun, publisher of Japan's most influential business newspaper, recently named the 12-team J-League one of 1993's hitto shohin (hit products), alongside instant mug-o-noodles, the Sharp View-Cam, the movie Jurassic Park and the Japanese translation of The Bridges of Madison County.

Although more popular than in the United States, soccer in Japan had not attracted the fanatical following common in Latin America, Europe and Africa. The J-League, however, drew 3.2 million spectators in its first year, inspiring a soccer craze among Japanese youth. As a result, the league's principal sponsors, Sony Creative Products and sporting goods manufacturer Mizuno, have reaped large returns on their investments. Sony, for example, has set up a profitable chain of 200 retail kiosks selling J-League merchandise: potato chips, chewing gum, dry-cell batteries and floppy disks in addition to the usual sports paraphernalia. League officials estimate that ticket and licensing revenues will hit $1.8 billion by 1996, with four franchises set to be added.

In some ways, the Japanese soccer league mirrors U.S. efforts to promote professional soccer. The North American Soccer League, the most successful of several attempts to create big-league soccer here, attracted fans and a two-year network television contract. It folded in 1984; since then, professional soccer in America has been limited to the low-profile indoor game.

The NASL lured aging foreign stars such as Brazil's Pele and the Netherlands's Johann Cruyff with big contracts. Likewise, some of the biggest stars in the J-League are Zico, an aging Brazilian World Cup veteran now playing for the Kashima Antlers; "Toto" Schillachi, leading scorer for Italy's 1990 World Cup team and now with the Jubilo Iwata; and Gary Lineker, captain of England's 1986 World Cup team and now with the Nagoya Grampus 8. Sanfrecce Hiroshima just won the first stage of the current J-League season on a goal by Czech star Paul Czerny. …