This is Part 1 of a three-part series on women's soccer in Japan. Interest in the sport is high right now after Nadeshiko Japan won the Women's World Cup and earned a berth in the 2012 London Olympics.
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On July 31, Nadeshiko League senior executive Yoshinori Taguchi attended a match between the Urawa Reds Ladies and AS Elfen Sayama in Saitama. What he saw left him determined to get more fans out.
The Nadeshiko League had been enjoying unprecedented popularity following the Japanese women's national team's victory over the United States in the Women's World Cup final in mid-July. INAC Kobe Leonessa, a team that includes national side captain, Homare Sawa, and other members of Nadeshiko Japan, has been setting new attendance records each time it takes the field. In the 12 games the league has held since the Women's World Cup, attendance surpassed that of all 90 games held last year.
But at Saitama Stadium's second ground on July 31, fewer than 1,000 people showed up to watch the Nadeshiko League game. Here, nothing had changed since the World Cup. Taguchi saw this and realized something had to be done.
"Of the new fans who are attending our games, how many will be content with women's soccer itself and watch our games again?" he said. "Probably not many. What will encourage fans to come out again? That's what we have to think about."
Women's soccer falls far behind the men's game in terms of performance quality and speed. The limited number of female soccer players in Japan means there is a huge gap in the performance level of women's players.
But Nadeshiko League teams have closer ties with their supporters compared to men's J.League teams. Taguchi realized this could be the special "appeal" factor he was looking for. For example, the players personally know their teams' cheerleading squads. Also, some supporters always sit next to one another, even though the seats are all non-reserved. Taguchi said this atmosphere is similar to corporate sports, which had fostered a sense of unity within companies in the past.
Taguchi doesn't expect the league to maintain its record attendance pace of 20,000-plus, which it enjoyed immediately after Nadeshiko Japan's World Cup victory. He does, however, hope it can retain a lot of those supporters on a regular basis.
"Our environment is not suitable for turning the league professional, like the U.S. women's soccer league," he said. "We'd like to continue our grass-roots efforts, and have local fans feel like the Nadeshiko League teams are their own. To achieve this, we'd like to deepen ties with municipal governments and with the J.League."
The keywords "grass roots" and "women" are a good fit with the philosophy of the J.League. Some J.League teams are already expressing interest in having their own Nadeshiko League teams.
Yokohama F Marinos are one such team.
"We consider hometown activities to be a significant part of our agenda," said team president Akira Kaetsu. "The participation of women (in soccer) would empower the club."
In 1994, the Marinos organization actually dissolved the Nissan Ladies, a team in a women's soccer league at the time. Resurrecting its own women's team may improve the club's image.
J.League teams are not required to have women's teams in order to participate in the league. The issue has been discussed, but it was never made mandatory due to obstacles such as costs and other variables. Currently, more than 300 women play soccer under the Marinos group as part of promotional efforts, etc. The club also offers three soccer classes exclusively for women. Still, the organization is not about to try to create a competitive women's team with designs on the Nadeshiko League in the short term.
"(Women's soccer) is in a boom phase right now, but we still don't see a need (to form a team)," said Marinos President Kaetsu. "First, we need to cultivate market needs and then think about how to create a receiving platform for those needs.
"I hope that the reality of the situation is that one day we will have a team that participates in the Nadeshiko League."
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