Since 2014, Mitsuru Murai has been leading Japan’s premier soccer league into the future. In just five years, the J.League chairman has already implemented sweeping changes to globalize the league’s audience, make use of cutting edge technology and raise the level of on-field play.

Murai spoke at the recent Rakuten Optimism 2019 conference in Yokohama, Japan, joining a panel of business and sports leaders to talk about the future of sports business — a hot topic following Rakuten’s partnerships with FC Barcelona, the Davis Cup, the Golden State Warriors and the NBA. Rakuten Today caught up with Murai for a chat about Japanese soccer.

Increasing the size of the pie: “It’s not a competition”

“I used to think of other sports as rivals for our viewers. But today, I don’t think that at all,” Murai shared. Baseball, for example, receives a lot of attention around Asia, yet Murai doesn’t believe that its popularity detracts from that of soccer. On the contrary — more fans of sports overall mean more potential fans for soccer.

“There is a sort of unscripted quality that’s common across all sports, not just soccer,” he explained. “In the end, it’s very beneficial for the J.League to have more fans of sports in general.”

J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai has been leading Japan's premier soccer league into a digital future since 2014.
J.League chairman Mitsuru Murai has been leading Japan’s premier soccer league into a digital future since 2014.

Murai has garnered these insights in part thanks to his efforts to bring the sport into the digital age. In 2016, he announced a new initiative to livestream J.League matches online to fans around the world. “Looking at the data from our live broadcasts, there are actually quite a lot of people watching both baseball and the J.League.”

A high-quality football future

“It used to just be a dream for Japan to participate in the World Cup. Now, Japan has been in the last six tournaments. This is how high the level has risen since the J.League was established,” Murai explained.

But the J.League chairman is far from satisfied: “By 2030, we want to be playing at the level of the English, German and Spanish leagues — all countries that regularly make it to the knockout stage of the World Cup.”

Murai knows what steps are necessary to achieve this vision. “We need top international talent like Iniesta to come to the J.League, and we need young Japanese players to rack up experience overseas.”

The signings of international stars such as Andres Iniesta, David Villa and Lukas Podolski to the Rakuten-owned Vissel Kobe have provided a clear precedent of what talent can bring to the league. In the short year since Iniesta began playing, team revenue has skyrocketed, making Vissel the highest earning team in the league by a significant margin. The team has played to packed stadiums and sales of fan goods have risen to unprecedented levels.

Murai believes that this kind of enthusiasm can breathe new life not only into Japan’s love for sports, but also change Japan in more broad and profound ways.

Murai wants to raise the J.League to rival the English, German and Spanish leagues. Onstage with (from left) CyberAgent President Susumu Fujita, former Tokyo Yakult Swallows player-manager Atsuya Furuta and Rakuten’s Mickey Mikitani.
Murai wants to raise the J.League to rival the English, German and Spanish leagues. Onstage with (from left) Susumu Fujita, CyberAgent President and founder, Atsuya Furuta, former player-manager for the Tokyo Yakult Swallows Professional Baseball Club, and Rakuten’s Mickey Mikitani.

“Pro sport isn’t just about the sports — it’s about promoting a healthy lifestyle to the greater population,” he added. “It’s about guiding people to eat healthily. It’s about teaching kids teamwork and the value of working hard. It’s about international exchange. We believe we can solve many of the challenges that Japan faces through the power of sport.”

Daring to dream

“No matter how big your dream, you can make it come true,” Murai concluded. “People used to say nothing would ever rival baseball in popularity in Japan. But here we are, after just 25 years. People back then would never have thought they could be watching someone like Iniesta in Japan.”

Murai has boundless optimism about the future of soccer and the role of sports in Japan. “If you have a big dream and work hard towards it, you can achieve all sorts of things. That’s something to be optimistic about, I think.”

An optimistic outlook: Murai has big dreams for the future of the J.League and sports in Japan.
An optimistic outlook: Murai has big dreams for the future of the J.League and sports in Japan.

Learn more about the Rakuten Optimism event held in Japan from July 31-August 3 here

For more information about the upcoming Rakuten Optimism event in San Francisco on October 23, please visit this site.