Much of the credit goes to Saburo Kawabuchi, 57, a former Olympian, and more recently manager of Japan's national soccer team and chairman of the Japan Soccer League, the governing body for the amateur sport.
Mr. Kawabuchi realized that soccer could only flourish in Japan as a professional sport with a strong international team. As an amateur sport, soccer was enjoyed by few spectators. Teams were sponsored by companies built for self-promotion and employee recreation.
But as Mr. Kawabuchi went about creating a professional league for his favorite sport, he encouraged sponsorship of both teams and events-all operating, however, by the same rules of a single governing body, which he heads.
All of J.League's teams share a logo, providing strong brand identity-but each team sports a distinctive, colorful uniform designed by sportswear manufacturer Mizuno Corp., the exclusive manufacturer of team uniforms and licensee of replicas that fans can buy.
"We had developed integrated marketing, media and merchandising concepts that were attractive to [sponsors and advertisers], and which would also help us develop the sport," Mr. Kawabuchi said.
The League negotiates and controls all media and merchandising rights and shares the revenues split equally among all the teams after the league takes its share.
Such an approach had never been used before in Japan: Each baseball team monitors its own merchandising and media rights.
To build fan support, Mr. Kawabuchi rooted each team in its own hometown, encouraging investment from local companies and individuals. Two cities, Hiratsuka and Iwata, are joining this year, bringing J.League's roster to 12, and others are lining up.
More than 120 companies-the Blue Chips of Japan such as Toyota Motor Corp., Matsushita Electrical Industrial Co., Mazda Motor Corp., Mitsubishi Motor Corp., as well as Yomiuri Shimbun and Nippon TV Network-are team sponsors, match sponsors, uniform or equipment suppliers or holders of merchandising rights.
And while more than 4 million fans cheered their teams in the league's first year, J.League's success is also measured by the multitude of tie-in merchandise bearing the J.League and team logos.
Citizen Watch sold 550,000 J.League watches at $96.45 in a saturated market.
Calbee sold $4.8 million of J.League potato chips-20 times the norm.
Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. sold 15 million J.League batteries in nine months, more than three times its original target, and 40,000 $510 J.League bikes, twice its target, in the 10 months after its May 1993 introduction.
Nippon Shinpan attracted 50,000 new customers with its J.League credit card, and Fuji Bank won 440,000 new accounts with a J.League bankbook.
Sony Creative Products, official merchandiser for the league's flags, caps and other souvenirs, predicted sales of $43 million-and was astonished to see 1993 sales reach $290 million.
Thirty-six J.League players became media heroes from hawking products as diverse as Coca-Cola, hair pieces, TV program guides, energy drinks, ham, vacuum flasks, credit cards, curry, T-shirts and insecticides.
This March, the NLI Research Institute raised its original estimate of the league's market from $1.1 billion to $1.5 billion, of which $290 million came from sales of official souvenirs, $386 million from licensing, $240 million from J.League sportswear and equipment, $195 million from media rights, $190 million from teams' sponsorship events and the rest from ticket sales.
"Two years ago, if you said soccer would have the level of support we are experiencing now, you would have been told you were dreaming," says Mr. Kawabuchi.
"Things just took off on an upward spiral."