As a new season kicks off, the J-League is aiming to broaden its reach in Southeast Asia with help from one of its most popular international stars.
Since his arrival at first-division Consadole Sapporo in 2017, Thailand midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin has given a major boost to the profile of the Japanese league in his homeland.
(Masaaki Kimura, senior managing director of J.League, and Benjamin Tan awards Chanathip Songkrasin #18 of Consadole Sapporo the J.League Asia Challenge 2019 Thailand trophy after the preseason friendly match between True Bangkok United and Consadole Sapporo at the SCG Stadium on Jan. 27, 2019 in Nonthaburi, Thailand.)[Getty/Kyodo]
The biggest name in Thai football, 25-year-old Chanathip is an A-list celebrity in the Southeast Asian country, where his face regularly adorns billboards and magazines.
His move from Thai powerhouse club Muangthong United to Consadole, in Japan's northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, was discussed exhaustively by the Thai press, as well as fans on social media.
The signing has been a big success on and off the field for Consadole, bringing them a legion of new Thai fans and helping them achieve a club-best fourth-place finish in J1 last season.
Following an outstanding second year in Japan, in which Consadole manager Mihailo Petrovic made him the club's attacking linchpin, Chanathip was selected to the J-League Best XI, becoming the first Southeast Asian player to earn the honor.
Along the way, the diminutive attacker helped drive Thai TV viewership of J-League broadcasts to an all-time high.
A clash between Consadole and J-League powerhouse Kawasaki Frontale in August 2017 drew an estimated 400,000 Thai TV viewers, outperforming a broadcast of popular domestic side Buriram United.
As part of its outreach, Consadole held a preseason camp in Thailand last month, with Chanathip donning the captain's armband for an exhibition match against his former club Muangthong.
The midfielder is mindful of his role as an ambassador for the J-League in Thailand and says he hopes to convince more of his compatriots about the merits of the league.
"I've been saying that it's a really strong league, and with a lot of big names joining recently, it's fun to watch, so please tune in," Chanathip told website Soccer King at the recent J-League media day.
The J-League hopes its burgeoning popularity in Thailand can provide a template for other Southeast Asian markets, where the top European soccer leagues command huge followings.
With its current overseas broadcasting rights contract set to expire at the end of 2019, the J-League wants to raise its profile before a new deal comes into effect.
According to the league, recruiting more players from Southeast Asia is vital to developing these markets.
"Without talented players from those countries (playing in the J-League), it's hard to gain an advantage (from Southeast Asia)," a senior J-League executive said, adding that the league has Vietnam and Indonesia in its sights next.
"We want to collaborate with clubs in order to attract more national team-caliber players from (Southeast Asian) countries."
Since 2017, the J-League has allowed each team to sign one player from an Asian Football Confederation nation outside of the existing foreign player quota.
Last year, Chanathip's Thailand teammates Teerasil Dangda and Theerathon Bunmathan played in the J-League first division with Sanfrecce Hiroshima and Vissel Kobe, respectively.
Thailand captain Teerasil has returned to Muangthong following the completion of his loan deal, but Theerathon is continuing to play in the J-League this season with Yokohama F Marinos.
Newly promoted J1 side Oita Trinita, meanwhile, have acquired Thailand midfielder Thitipan Puangchan on loan.
The J-League's Thai Facebook page has grown to more than 370,000 followers, with regular updates about Chanathip and other Thai-language content.
That figure pales in comparison to Chanathip's personal following, however, which includes more than 2 million followers on Instagram.
An avid social media user, Chanathip regularly posts photos and videos, including snapshots of his travels around Japan or candid moments with his Consadole teammates.
For Thai soccer diehards, social media is the first option for keeping tabs on their favorite players, according to longtime fan Nicharat Tantichairat.
"TV or newspapers report the news about Thai players in the J-League from time to time, but social media pages -- for example, Facebook -- report the news (more) regularly," she said.
"There are even match previews before the start of games. The level of engagement on these social media pages is quite high compared to traditional TV programs."
Nicharat, a Bangkok resident, said she and other Thai fans had been impressed by the level of play in the J-League.
"The impression of the J-League from the perspective of Thai football fans is it's the strongest football league in Asia," Nicharat, 32, said.
"The fact that every team has an almost equal chance to become champion, or get relegated, is one of the aspects that Thai people admire. It's proof that the overall standard of the league is very impressive."
In addition to his countless Thai fans, Chanathip has attracted a sizeable following in Japan thanks to his exciting play and cheerful personality.
Hokkaido Television Broadcasting recently aired a half-hour documentary chronicling Chanathip's footballing journey, starting from his childhood in the city of Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand.
In an interview for the program, Consadole chairman Yoshikazu Nonomura said investment by the J-League in Southeast Asia can be mutually beneficial.
"I think the J-League can extend its reach beyond Japanese viewers and be embraced throughout Southeast Asia," Nonomura told HTB. "If the level of football in Southeast Asia rises, the J-League will also benefit."
"After watching Chanathip, I think children in Southeast Asia and Thailand will long to play in the J-League."
J-League chairman Mitsuru Murai, meanwhile, lauded Chanathip both for his on-field performance and promotion of the league in Thailand.
"I was surprised when a video of Chanathip's first practice in Sapporo attracted 3 million viewers, more than the entire population of Sapporo," Murai said.
"He has made a huge impact on the J-League. I want him to continue developing in the league."