J. League targets Generation Z with TikTok partnership

With fans making their way back to stadiums after two years of pandemic-related restrictions, the J. League is ready to introduce itself to new audiences — one viral video at a time.

The league announced a new partnership with TikTok on Monday, aiming to use the video-sharing service to offer an unfiltered look behind the scenes and further build on the league’s digital push over the last few years.

“An important part of developing our league is figuring out how to widen our circle of friends, and with one video we can extend that circle,” J. League Chairman Yoshikazu Nonomura said during a news conference at JFA House.

“On the pitch, soccer is about winning and losing. But if you take a step back there’s an incredibly fun world to explore in the J. League, and we want more people to know about it. … We want to use TikTok to present aspects of the J.League that we haven’t been able to show before.

In partnering with the platform, the J. League is aiming to attract viewers born after 1997 — popularly known as “Generation Z” — who already have countless entertainment options vying for their attention, ranging from concerts and video games to other sports such as basketball and auto racing.

It’s a demographic the league has long struggled to gain traction with: The average J. League fan’s age rose from 34.7 to 42.8 between 2004 and 2019, according to the league’s official fan surveys, while the percentage of fans under the age of 30 has decreased from 34.5% to 22.1% over the same period.

Attracting younger fans could be key in restoring the league’s average attendance, which stands at 12,098 in the first division after last weekend’s games, from the record high of 20,751 set in 2019 — the last full season before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the sports industry.

“TikTok has a lot of Generation Z users, which is a segment we especially want to reach,” Nonomura said. “Our hope is that through this partnership they’ll learn about the league and our clubs, come to the stadium, watch games and grow an interest in soccer.

The deal is the latest in the soccer world for TikTok, which partnered with the UEFA for last year’s European championships and signed an agreement with the Confederation of African Football in January.

Yosuke Sato, general manager of TikTok Japan, suggested that the app’s focus on short-form videos — as well as its algorithm-based discovery feed — would help to introduce more users to J. League content.

“It’s about showing people new content quickly, even if they aren’t following those accounts,” Sato said. “We take a different approach to other platforms when it comes to what content you see.

“So if you watch a lot of soccer content, it will show you videos about regions and teams you may not have known about previously.”

The partnership will see the J. League stage three so-called “hashtag challenges” over the course of the season, encouraging fans to shoot and upload videos related to soccer and their J. League matchday experience.

It’s the latest step the league has taken to capitalize on user-generated content since new social media guidelines, which for the first time explicitly allow fans to upload photos taken during play as well as videos taken inside the stadium, went into effect ahead of the 2022 season.

Clubs and even players themselves have also started to put more effort into content creation, especially with fan interactions severely limited during the pandemic.

“After games I’d take celebratory photos with my teammates and the response really made me realize how happy our fans are to see those moments off the pitch,” former Kawasaki Frontale midfielder Kengo Nakamura said. “I think fans will be delighted to see sorts of candid videos and I hope the players will be enthusiastic about making them.”

Such content could also help the J. League find new audiences overseas — TikTok says it reached 1 billion active users in 2021 and that videos containing the hashtags #soccer and #football generated over 510 billion views.

“Athletes’ candid videos from the Olympic Village and competition venues went viral around the world during the Tokyo Olympics and generated interest, and we think the J. League has the same potential,” Sato said.

“One of the appeals of video is that it doesn’t have to rely on language. If the video is interesting, viewers will enjoy it.”

As part of its efforts, the J. League also appointed comedian Unparunpa, whose popular takes on high school soccer have seen his TikTok following grow to 1.5 million, as its ambassador on the platform.

“I’ve watched the J. League since I was a kid and TikTok has changed my life, so I’m grateful and excited to work with both of them,” the 21-year-old said.

“I aimed to become a pro player as a kid … but as a student I realized it would be a little difficult, so to be the J. League’s ambassador on TikTok feels like my dream has come true.”

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