League One season recap: Topflight Rugby in Japan finds footing after relaunch

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League One, Japan’s top-flight professional rugby competition, ended its first season since being overhauled in a bid to raise the level of the sport in the country and attract new fans. It has been a bumpy ride at times for clubs and league management as they grapple with a number of challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Below we look at what changes are needed ahead of next season.

To a fresh start

The launch of Japan Rugby League One in 2022 marked a new chapter for professional rugby in the country. Formerly the Top League, the competition launched in January and featured 24 teams in three divisions – 12 in the first division and 6 each in the second and third divisions. Clubs dropped the names of the corporations that field teams – a feature of the Top League since 2003 – for regional designations and were given more autonomy in business matters. The league also beefed up its foreign player roster with several international superstars, thereby increasing its domestic and international appeal.

Saitama Wild Knights were crowned champions of the inaugural season, defeating Tokyo Sungoliath 18-12 in the final at the New National Stadium in Tokyo on May 29. The game was attended by Japan national team players such as Yamasawa Takuya and Inagaki Keita of Wild Knights Sungoliath’s Nagare Yutaka and Nakamura Ryōto. The crowd also cheered Tokyo’s Damian McKenzie, but it was Saitama’s world-class defensive system that clinched the win, holding off the league-leading Sungoliath attacker without attempt.

Despite coming up short for his team in the final, All Blacks star McKenzie showed that rugby has a lot to offer in Japan, top international talent. Throughout the season, he wowed fans with his ability to make big plays and led the league as a goalscorer. However, as the stakes rose during the playoffs, his skills as a team player showed and cemented his role as a central pillar of the club.

New Zealand player Damian McKenzie flashes his iconic smile before taking a penalty in the League One final. (© Jiji)

A new approach to rugby

A major change with the launch of League One was that clubs now run their own promotional activities, including ticketing rights and venue management, rather than the governing body of the Japan Rugby Football Union, as was the case with the Top League was the case. It is then up to the organizations to devise different business and marketing strategies to attract sponsors and build their fan base.

The Wild Knights, for example, formed a new management company, Panasonic Sports, shortly after the start of the season. This joins Panasonic Holdings Corporation’s other professional teams, the Panasonic Panthers V. League volleyball team and the Gamba Osaka J. League football team, and becomes a fully commercial entity, where the company manages and supports promotional events for home games business activities of the team in other ways.

Of particular interest was the club’s efforts to establish a regional presence. The Wild Knights originally had a clubhouse in Ōta, Gunma Prefecture. But in August 2021, it chose Kumagaya in neighboring Saitama Prefecture, one of the 2019 Rugby World Cup venues, as its new hometown. In September, the Knights opened the Kumagaya Sports Hotel overlooking the team’s practice facility, and in March of this year they opened the Wild Knights Clinic, a chiropractic and rehabilitation facility that serves players as well as other athletes and members of the surrounding community.

Tokyo Sungoliath, on the other hand, took a different approach. In the Top League competition, the team was managed by Suntory Group’s Corporate Social Responsibility department. With the launch of League One, it remained part of the conglomerate but was brought under the umbrella of the newly formed Sport Business Development Section.

The club’s general manager, Tanaka Kiyonori, calls this a ‘hybrid’ system. “Until now, the team has only worked with the annual budget allocated to them,” he explains. “Starting this year, however, we must also develop new commercial opportunities to create a sustainable sports business model. The approach makes us a kind of cross between a sports club and a business organization.”

Other League One teams will need to consider their needs when deciding whether to follow the Wild Knights and become fully professional sports clubs or take Sungoliath’s hybrid approach. While there is no right answer, the direction organizations take will be crucial in determining the future of professional rugby in Japan.

Everything under one name

Looking back on League One’s first season, a few points stand out. Perhaps the most obvious was the difficulty in keeping the club names clear. After teams abandoned their corporate titles for regional designations, five clubs in the Premier League carried either Tokyo or Tokyo Bay as part of their names. Nicknames tended to be mouthfuls, and the use of abbreviations like BL Tokyo (Brave Lupus Tokyo) and BR Tokyo (Black Rams Tokyo) only added to the confusion.

The problem with new team names was highlighted by the confusing tendency of foreign-born coaches to continue to refer to opponents by their old company names for convenience, which reporters like me saw as a test of faith. If clubs are to increase their regional presence, the league and teams need to develop a strategy to make names more memorable and easily distinguishable.

pandemic disease

The league’s COVID-19 policy also proved a point of contention. It was up to organizations to control infections among staff and players, and teams unable to field a full line-up ahead of a game were forced to abandon the competition. However, that no-holds-barred approach ultimately worked against clubs as they attempted to get their fledgling operations off the ground, with 18 of the 96 games scheduled to be cancelled.

Green Rockets Tōkatsu team rep Kajihara Takeshi expressed his frustration with the politics in the July issue of Rugby Magazine. He described the cancellation of one of his eight home games as “a major blow to our bottom line” and stressed that there was “room for improvement” in relation to the no-games-postponement policy. “Sponsors have paid for advertising at the game and there have been other commitments that have also been nullified. I hope the league realizes how serious the issue is.”

Shizuoka Blue Revs Club Relations Officer Gorōmaru Ayumu echoed that assessment, calling the team’s four canceled home games “very disappointing”. The 2015 Rugby World Cup star and former club player recognized the long-term implications. “We had a terrible feeling about letting our fans down. Refunding all tickets was absolutely heartbreaking.”

The league cannot ignore the financial drain and other damage to clubs from game cancellations. However, it remains unclear what changes, if any, will be made ahead of next season.

Gorōmaru Ayumu strikes his signature pose before performing a kick during his time as a player for Yamaha (now the Shizuoka Blue Revs).  (© Jiji)
Gorōmaru Ayumu strikes his signature pose before performing a kick during his time as a player for Yamaha (now the Shizuoka Blue Revs). (© Jiji)

maintain interest in life

The inaugural season has given clubs a lot to think about and organizations are using the off-season to revise their strategies, including optimizing staff and considering various ways to attract fans and enhance the stadium experience. Unfortunately, the league’s new approach to business has called for losses as several teams either downsize operations or withdraw from the competition altogether. However, there remains ample room for the league to grow as long as organizations use the lessons learned from the pandemic-ravaged 2022 season to improve governance and management.

Next year’s Rugby World Cup in France offers the league a unique opportunity to capitalize on the excitement generated by the tournament. Fans in Japan will be following the national team’s progress closely, but there is a real chance that the interest generated by the event will quickly evaporate after the final whistle and rugby will disappear from public radar for another four years. To avoid this, League One should look to successful domestic leagues for sports like baseball and soccer in developing teams with strong hometown identities that draw fans to games.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The Saitama Wild Knights celebrate becoming the inaugural Japan Rugby League One champions after defeating Tokyo Sungoliath at the National Stadium in Tokyo on May 29, 2022. © Jiji.)

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