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Professional sports in Japan - statistics & facts

Japan has a vibrant professional sports scene. Team sports such as baseball and soccer are the most popular among the Japanese. Both sports feature seasonal professional circuits which are highly organized and run for most of the year. The format and size of a professional circuit can vary strongly. For example, the Nippon Professional Baseball League (NPB) was comprised of no more than 12 teams, while 57 soccer teams were playing in three different divisions in the J.League during the 2021 season. Other sports leagues with sizable followership include the B.League in basketball, the V.League in volleyball, and the Japan Rugby League One. The professional sports scene in Japan is highly dynamic and keeps developing, with many of the circuits being relatively new. For instance, the J.League was inaugurated in 1992, while the V.League’s maiden year was in 1994, and that of the B.League (following external pressure) was in 2015. Another indicator for the development of the professional sports scene in Japan is the rapid growth of already existing professional circuits, such as exemplified by the J.League.

Blurry boundaries between professional and amateur sports

While the governing bodies of certain sports in Japan have succeeded in staging professional circuits, associations in other sports disciplines are struggling to do so, unable to progress from the semi-professional or amateur status, regardless of the level of play of the sport’s leading athletes. Various sports, such as judo or badminton, in which Japan is very well represented on the international stage, have yet to outgrow the national championship stage and create professional circuits. The path to a professional sports league is thorny. Several obstacles need to be cleared for a sport to afford a professional league. A national organization that plans and oversees activities and events is a necessary element and a stable source of income to organize events and pay athletes is another important prerequisite. Money is key. For governing bodies of sports and sports clubs, the most important sources of income include sponsorships from businesses and corporations, broadcasting rights deals, government grants such as the Sports Promotion Fund, and revenues generated from sports fans either through entry fees at venues or via the sale of merchandise. In the case of Japan, the distinction between amateur and professional sport is often not a matter of the level of play, but the organizational state of the respective sport. Top athletes in “non-professional” sports usually sign deals with corporate sponsors.

Fostering talent

Numerous organizations with different agendas and objectives are involved in the unfolding of sports in Japan. These include making sports equipment and facilities available to the public, strengthening anti-doping regulations for competitive athletes, and fostering sports talents, among others. In today’s hyper-competitive sports scene, world champions do not crawl out of the woodwork. It is a matter of creating the right environment for individuals to develop into world-class athletes. Multiple public and private organizations in Japan are directly or indirectly engaged in creating an environment in which sports play an integral role in society. This is especially evident for sports participation at educational institutions. The number of sports club members at junior high schools and high schools is substantial. Sports clubs at schools comprise the largest share of memberships at many national sports associations, such as in the case of the Nippon Badminton Association. Avid participation in competitive sports at an early stage in individuals’ life, paired with the availability of facilities, equipment, and skilled instructors, is the hotbed of high performance in sports. The necessary funds to create and maintain such an environment are provided by local and national sponsors, as well as the government. Monetary aid from the Sports Promotion Lottery is one of the big contributors to financing sports in Japan.

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