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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

J. WALKING

Ex-Reds defender Nishino now doing business off the pitch


To prepare him for life at the University of Liverpool, former Urawa Reds defender Tsutomu Nishino studied the "Scouse" accents of Liverpool players Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher on TV in Japan.

Jeremy Walker

So when he arrived on Merseyside and began mixing with the locals, at least he knew what to expect.

But nothing he had seen in the J. League could prepare him for what he was about to learn in the world of sports business.

During his one-year course, Nishino visited several clubs in England and in continental Europe, and studied their daily money-making operations.

Whether it be Liverpool, Barcelona, Inter Milan or the more humble Tranmere Rovers, they all had one thing in common: new ideas on how to keep the cash rolling in from as many avenues as possible.

Now he's back in Japan, armed with an MBA (Master in Business Administration) in the soccer industry, and ready to practice what he learned behind the scenes of some of Europe's biggest clubs.

The major difference between Japanese and European clubs, he says, is that in Europe it's a business.

In Japan, the big clubs are just an offshoot of a wealthy parent company, and there is no pressure to make a profit.

"I think English clubs regard the supporters as customers, but in Japan clubs don't regard the fans as customers yet," says the 34-year-old Nishino, who is now a sports business consultant, based in Yokohama.

"From my point of view, J. League clubs have to focus on the supporters, on how to satisfy them and make them pay their money to the club."

During his course, he saw first hand how big clubs flourished and small clubs survived around Europe, and he feels Japan still has much to learn, despite the J. League growing from 10 clubs in 1993 to 30 this season.

"In England, football is a business. In Japan it is not a business . . . still.

"When it comes to sponsorship, clubs in England and Europe know how to measure the value of their brand, but in Japan we don't know how to do that," he says.

"The sponsorship price is decided in a different way, and I think a lot of that is because the big clubs are just subsidiaries of the owner company.

"If the football club makes a loss, the owner company will cover that loss.

"If we work hard and make a profit, the profit is not ours because we have to pay it back to the company.

"In England, if a club makes a loss it might have to go into administration. They must work hard to survive, and this is the biggest difference between Japanese and European clubs."

Many of Japan's top-flight clubs are company offshoots, such as Yokohama F. Marinos (Nissan), Urawa Reds (Mitsubishi), Nagoya Grampus Eight (Toyota), Jubilo Iwata (Yamaha) and Kashiwa Reysol (Hitachi).

Although the clubs have their own hometown identity, they are still regarded as a valuable marketing tool by the parent company.

For example, a Marinos-Reds match would attract 50,000 fans at Yokohama or Saitama, a live TV audience of millions, and reams of reports in newspapers and magazines.

What better vehicle for Nissan and Mitsubishi to advertise their new . . . well, vehicle, free of charge?

Nishino, who retired in 2001 after nine years with Urawa, feels that progress is being made on the business front in Japan, but it's lower down the J. League ladder.

For J1 clubs without a major backer, or for those in J2 with a small budget, ideas and business initiatives are the name of the game.

"Some of them struggle to survive," he says.

"The big clubs in J1 don't have this problem, but the small J. League clubs must work hard and seek new ways to make money.

"I think it's through the management of these clubs that Japanese football will find a new business model, and a new way of doing things."

Although he stills works for Urawa on match days, Nishino is hoping to put his expertise into practice at a smaller club, where change is easier to implement.

As for that Liverpudlian accent?

Well, he couldn't quite master it.

"A year was too short," he admits.

"When I heard the Scouse accent for the first time I didn't think it was English. I thought it was a different language.

"The lady at the university cafe was a Scouser and tried to talk in easy English, but I still had difficulty understanding her. It was too fast."

Player of the Week: Motherwell striker Scott McDonald.

The Celtic fan put business first by scoring twice in a 2-1 victory over Celtic to hand the Scottish championship to Glasgow rival Rangers.

Quote of the Week: "He has transformed the club. There is no doubt about it."

-- Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein, referring to manager Arsene Wenger after the Gunners' F.A. Cup final triumph over Manchester United.



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