How to Freshen up Scottish Football: Look to Japan

Ok, so as someone who has lived in Japan for more than 10 years, there’s probably more than a wee bit of personal bias in that headline. But please, hear me out. The more I think about it, the more the J-League model makes sense for Scottish football. There are a number of initiatives the Japan Football Association has brought to bear on their top league in the last few years that I genuinely believe could benefit Scottish football. The league, the commercial product and most of all the fans would benefit from some of these relatively simple changes.

Let’s look at a few of them in more detail

  1. A Condensed Cup Tournament

This season is a season like no other. Until a few weeks ago, we weren’t even sure if there would be a Scottish Cup this year. In the end, the tournament has gone ahead, albeit in a compressed form. However, in Japan, this is the norm.

Following the conclusion of the league season in mid-November, The Emperor’s Cup (essentially an equivalent amalgam of the League Cup and the Scottish Cup) takes place over a period of 5 or 6 weeks, with the final being played on New Year’s Day as the final send-off for the league season. This has a number of benefits to both clubs and fans. Firstly, clubs are able to focus entirely on the league until the championship is decided. Even if a club has a bad season, the cup is still there as a final chance at redemption.

In Scotland, the fact that the League Cup and Scottish Cup both take place during the regular season leans heavily in favour of bigger clubs like Celtic and Rangers, who can, if they wish, essentially field a second team in the earlier rounds. Smaller clubs don’t have that luxury. For teams fighting to get into the top 6 or trying to fend of relegation, often the cup seems less like an opportunity and more like a needless distraction. Shifting the tournament to the end of the season would end this predicament.

There’s also the added incentive of fan excitement. Interest in the Scottish Cup tends to ebb and flow as there is usually several weeks between each tie. If there was a fresh fixture every week, not only would fans be more eager to see what happens next, TV companies are likely to take a greater interest too.

2. Summer Football

This is one that gets brought up every now and then, and beyond the intellectually bankrupt: “but, it’s tradition” argument, I’ve yet to hear anyone give me a solid reason why Scotland can’t have summer football.

If you’re using the same justification for keeping the current league calendar as you are for continuing to justify orange walks in the 21st century that tells me you don’t have much of an argument.

In the J-League, they had the common sense to build the league season around the weather. Much like Scotland, northern areas of Japan such as Hokkaido, and my current home of Nagano, have very harsh winters. Temperatures in Hokkaido regularly go as low as -20, and even here in Nagano, we recorded -12 as recently as January.

To accommodate teams in these areas, The J-League decided that the league season would run from March until November, with a 2 week break in summer. The 2022 World Cup will take place in December next year, yet the SFA still haven’t announced what they plan to do to work around this. It seems like the perfect time, in my opinion, to make the shift from our current calendar to that favoured by the J-League.

Then, there’s also the commercial benefit.

One of the SFA and the wider Scottish football infrastructure’s biggest failings, in my opinion, is their obsessive insistent on comparing everything we do with what happens in the English Premier League. England is ten times bigger than Scotland in terms of potential viewership, their clubs are on a completely different tier financially, and they have some of the best marketing and promotions people in the world. I don’t believe the EPL is the world’s finest in a footballing sense, but it is undoubtedly the best marketed league in the world. Scotland cannot compete with that, and frankly I’m sick of watching us try.

Instead, we should seek to make ourselves unique. Think about those long summer days when there’s no football on. You’ll scour the many sports channels and eventually end up watching a game from some far-off footballing frontier like the US, Australia or perhaps even Japan. With all due respect to those leagues, Scottish football is more marketable than any of them. Our clubs have history (well, those that pay their face painters do anyway), our clubs have compelling narratives behind them and when they’re in the mood, they can play some pretty entertaining football too.

We aren’t as good as the EPL, La Liga or Serie A and we never will be. We can however, be compete with most leagues elsewhere and that is where we should look to build a market for ourselves. Switching to a summer calendar allows us to do just that.

3. Uniformity of Pricing

As Celtic fans, aren’t you tired of going to see us play teams like Kilmarnock, St. Mirren or St. Johnstone and having to pay an inflated amount compared to what fans would usually pay to watch those teams each week? Likewise, if you support one of those teams I’m sure you too don’t appreciate having to pay over the odds for a ticket at Celtic Park, on top of however much it costs to travel there too.

Well, in the J-League, we don’t have this problem. There is a uniform pricing structure in place for all fixtures across the entire league season, and all clubs are legally bound to honour it. There are different tiers of pricing depending on where you want to sit in the stadium and whether or not your seats are reserved. Prices range from 2500 yen (About 16 pounds) for an unreserved seat behind one of the goals, up to 10,000 yen (About 65 pounds) for a priority seat in the VIP area (roughly equivalent to a seat in the directors box at Celtic Park). These prices are the same for home and away supporters regardless of who you are playing and where. The different pricing tiers allow fans to choose the ticket that best suits their budget, and those who want to spend a little more for added comfort have the option to do so.

4. Quick and Decisive Action Against Racism

Some see Japan as a country that tends to be more on the right of the political sphere. Indeed the government here has been deeply conservative for as long as I have been here. However, whilst like anywhere, Japan has its share of bigots and blowhards, to their credit the JFA have so far shown an absolute zero tolerance approach to racist behaviour from supporters. Their resolve was tested a few years ago though, in circumstances you may find all too familiar.

In early 2014, Urawa Reds, one of the J-Leagues richest and best supported clubs found themselves at the centre of a racism scandal. Urawa have been notorious pretty much since the beginning of the J-League in 1993 for having some of the worst fans in the league. Abusive chanting, acts of vandalism and intimidation of visiting supporters were commonplace. However, as they are bankrolled by the internationally renowned Mitsubishi Corporation, their financial clout is considerable. This also gives their fans an astounding sense of entitlement.

Remind you of anyone?

Anyway, in March 2014, Urawa fans unfurled a banner at one of their home games that said “Japanese Only”. A fan representative was unapologetic about the banner, explaining at the time that the banner was made to “stop foreigners sitting in this part of the stadium”. Discriminatory chanting against foreigners could also be heard from that section of the stadium throughout the match. The club declined to remove the banner during the game, and initially denied that the banner was racist. The JFA would hear none of it though, and hit the club with a hefty fine and ordered that their next home match be played behind closed doors. costing them millions of yen in additional lost revenue.

Urawa soon apologized and 20 fans from their “ultras” group were banned from attending games. While they remain, in essence, the Huns of the J-League, to date their has been no further racist banners in the stadium.

It’s amazing how quickly a governing body can drive positive change when they show a little bit of backbone. One can dream at least, that something like this may happen one day in Scotland.

So there you have it. Just a few things that Japanese football could teach us about managing our national game better, if we are prepared to listen. Unfortunately, until we can drive through changes in the management of our game at the highest levels, these simple changes will likely remain a far off dream.

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