What Do Professional Sports Bring to Rural Japan?

On August 4th, the Toonippo, Aomori’s prefectural newspaper, carried an article about the opening of the ice hockey season, delayed one month due to coronavirus. One can certainly be forgiven for not knowing that northern Japan has professional ice hockey, but the surprising truth is that rural Japan boasts a range of professional sports. With teams numbering in the hundreds across cities and towns in almost every corner of the country, Japan’s local sports teams represents a complex combination of owner management strategy on one side and fan loyalty on the other. Yet identifying tangible financial benefits or determining their role in local pride and prestige mostly remains elusive.

The king of pro sports in regional Japan is soccer. The Japanese Association Football League has over 200 clubs organized in a seven-level pyramid league system, with  average attendances across the leagues at 19,000 for top-tier J1, 3,000 for second-tier J2, and 900 for the remaining J3 and Japan Football League teams. Rural Aomori Prefecture with 1.25 million residents is home to three pro soccer teams, each having local corporate sponsorship in various categories—uniform partners, banner partners, supply partners and so on—along with multiple fan support levels, from regular fan club at ¥3,000 to the premium booster at ¥30,000 in one case.

Next on the hierarchy of local professional sports is basketball. Japan’s professional men’s basketball league, B. League, was inaugurated in 2016, completing a switch from a corporate-sponsored league (where players are nominally employed by a sponsoring company which fields the team) to a fully professional league. Attendance in the league’s first season averaged just under 2,800 fans per game over a 50+ season schedule, putting the league’s overall attendance just under 1.5 million. With increasing fan support, the league cited ¥30.8 billion in revenues for the 2018-2019 season. The main money makers were the big city clubs, but there are small-city teams in the lower divisions—the SeaHorses (Kariya in Aichi Prefecture, population 150,000) and the Shimane Susanoo Magic(Matsue in Shimane Prefecture, population 200,000)—and teams located in the west and north of Japan, such as the Aomori Wat’s. Like Aomori’s soccer clubs, the Wat’s enjoy a dozen or more local sponsors, but boast a five-level booster program with a top level—platinum—membership fee of ¥100,000.

Lastly, ice hockey. The six-team Asia League Ice Hockey includes three teams from Japan (in Aomori, Tochigi, and Tomakomai and Kushiro in Hokkaido), two from South Korea, and one from Russia. Also like the Aomori Wats, Aomori Prefecture’s Tohoku Free Blades boasts a five-level fan club hierarchy and a PLATINUM level at ¥100,000.

There are various explanations for professional sports franchises in rural and out-of-the-way places. They can provide a “farm system” to develop talent for the big leagues, such as American Major League Baseball’s farm system comprised of dozens of teams across the United States. They can also “grow the game” of once-regionalized sports, such as the National Hockey League establishing professional teams across nontraditional markets which made ice hockey a truly North American sport rather than a sport restricted to Canada and the northern United States. And local sports are often touted as a means of revitalizing small market local economies, as planners often boast of the potential revenue and employment benefits of hosting professional teams.

However, the reality is quite complex, especially for smaller cities and towns. In terms of the fiscal dimensions, research in Sweden and Denmark indicate that local teams are predictive neither of per capita income growth nor an increase in the local tax base, with one report putting its conclusion frankly: “Municipal politicians, public authorities or sport managers should no longer rationalize the use of public funds for local professional team sports clubs on the assumption of (tangible) economic effects or population growth, as it appears to be an inefficient use of public money.”

As for Japan, a Sports Graphic Number Web article viewed local sports through the lens of a business model, focusing primarily on financing and return on investment, hardly the way to engender a loyal fan base. One group of Japanese researchers was specifically pessimistic about professional sports in local revitalization in Japan: the connection is too abstract, the promotion structures undeveloped, and long-term continuity questionable.

Research on fan interest for local professional sports reveals a range of factors at work. Motivational factors for support often cite factors such as convenience (ease of parking), special events (a fireworks show), and a delicate balance between loyalty to the team (support demands attendance) and team success (attendance reflects the win/loss record). Providing a healthy means of stress release, a positive sense of community and self, and an opportunity to just enjoy watching a pro game are also ingredients in fan interest.

But local basketball reflects the complex reality of cultivating a devoted local fan base: one study found thatteam attachmentwas positively linked to resident’s place attachment, though this was countered by another study showing that fan status only slightly impacted place identity. J. League fan behavior—across league levels—has been shown to reflect a tension between attachment to the sport (highly connected to longevity; those who like the sport itself are long-term fans) versus attachment to the team (highly connected to attendance; those who like the team actually go to all the games).

Ultimately, rural pro sports are driven by devoted fans: those following their soccer team working its way up the league hierarchy; the faithful that show up to local basketball games on weeknights; the fanatics that watch Japanese hockey teams battle other Asian squads. More than any local economic punch, the truth of local pro sports is that their leagues need them and their fans support them.

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Anthony S. Rausch is professor at Hirosaki University, Japan. He has a PhD from Monash University (Australia) in social sciences. His research focuses on the social science dynamics of rural Japan. He is author of Japan’s Local Newspapers: Chihoshi and Revitalization Journalism (Routledge), Cultural Commodities in Japanese Rural Revitalization (Brill), and editor of Japanese Journalism and the Japanese Newspaper: A Supplemental Reader (Teneo Press). His wine of choice is an elegant Pinot Noir from Volnay.

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