Japan’s World Cup Team Struggles to Gain Respect at Home

The head of Japan’s professional female football league said support for women’s sports still lags behind other countries, even as global interest is rising.

(Bloomberg) — The head of Japan’s professional female football league said support for women’s sports still lags behind other countries, even as global interest is rising.

Haruna Takata, who chairs the two-year-old WE League, came into the spotlight recently when she floated an idea to start a crowdfunding campaign to fund the broadcast rights to avoid a TV blackout for the upcoming Women’s World Cup.

Public broadcaster NHK stepped in at the last minute to air the tournament, set to start in Australia and New Zealand on July 20. Takata said the saga helped raise awareness of the problems facing women’s football in Japan. 

Even though Japan won the title in 2011, media portrayals of female athletes in Japan don’t help, said Takata, who is also vice president at the Japan Football Association and was formerly the president of second-tier men’s league club V-Varen Nagasaki.

“In Japan the tendency is particularly strong to focus on the visual appeal and cuteness of female sports players,” she said. “No matter how much football’s competitiveness improves, it’s hard to get people to feel interested in that aspect of it.” 

“I think that people around the world are not really aware of the extent to which the gender gap index in Japan is reflected in the current issues surrounding women’s sports in Japan,” said Takata. “I think it is amazing that every country is so far ahead of the times in terms of the gender gap.” 

Japan ranks 116th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, and is the only Group of Seven country outside of the top 100. 

“If Japanese society didn’t have such a big gender gap, and if it were more enlightened about women, I think women’s football would also be more accessible for viewing,” said Takata.

The 2011 win for the Nadeshiko, as the team is known, was particularly significant as it came just months after the massive earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan’s northeast. 

“They were determined to give courage to the people of Japan by doing their best after the Great East Japan Earthquake,” said Takata. 

The team came second after losing to the US in 2015. However, momentum behind women’s football in Japan has stalled in the years since, even as global interest in women’s sport accelerates. Ticket sales for the Women’s World Cup already hit a record 1.25 million, while viewership and the number of sponsors have reached new heights in recent years. 

“I wish we had seized the opportunity when we won the World Cup, and invested more in the business side of it,” said Takata, who assumed the position at the women’s league last year.

Still, vast inequities remain in salaries and prize money, which are ultimately dependent on the ability of women’s sport to generate TV revenue. 

Japanese broadcasters had shown previous Women’s World Cup tournaments, but this year is the first time the rights are being sold independently and not bundled with the men’s event. European broadcasters had also initially been reluctant to pay for TV rights, putting in bids as low as less than 1% of the winning bid for last year’s Qatar World Cup. A European broadcast deal was finally reached in mid-June.

Japanese online platform Abema streamed the Qatar World Cup in November for free, with the national team’s unexpected progress out of the group stage pushing the service to have to restrict access due to overwhelming demand.

The Nadeshiko will play their first match against Zambia on July 22 in New Zealand. The US, who are aiming to win their third straight championship and fifth title overall, are the favorites.

Whether or not Japan repeat their 2011 success, Takata said she believes it’s still important to seize the opportunity to raise the value of women’s football overall with players becoming inspirations for young women.

“I believe that if we can pave the way, we can definitely have an impact on other women’s sports,” she said.

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