How do you grow a sport in a nontraditional market?
On a cool and rainy October afternoon at Fujitsu Stadium Kawasaki, the ball is snapped and pitched out wide. Two lines of enormous men collide: some trying to clear pathways, and their opponents trying to seal them.
The ball carrier runs laterally, looking for an opening. He spies one and plunges through. He speeds past one would-be tackler, and in a maneuver of incredible agility, dances around two others. He dives and stretches for the goal line, barely crossing it as he’s roughly dragged to the turf.
But only modest applause comes from the smattering of fans in the stands, many of them family or friends of the players. The remarkable athletic performance feels unresolved, like a clever joke told to an empty room.
Though the rain certainly affected the turnout, one can’t help but wonder: what if there were more fans here watching? What if there were lots more?
That is the challenge facing the X League, Japan’s top American football organization. Formed in 1997 and consisting of 55 teams divided into various tiers and divisions, the X League is trying to grow its fanbase and bring a fringe sport into the mainstream.
Football in Japan, however, faces an uphill battle for attracting new fans. Its rulebook is thick, its terminology unfamiliar and the basic flow of the game isn’t as easily grasped by the casual observer as, say, soccer or basketball.
Changing economic priorities are another factor. The X League has two types of teams: company teams (which are staffed, funded and operated by corporations) and club teams (independent organizations that hold open tryouts). Company teams hold the operational advantage as the parent business can provide a sound financial base as well as deal with marketing and logistics, allowing the team to focus solely on football.
However, there has been a sharp decrease in the number of company teams in the league. In the past, company teams were the majority. But today, only two company teams remain in X1 Super (the league’s top tier).
Mitsunobu Ishii, general manager of the X League’s Nojima Sagamihara Rise, explained that this is because the company team model is becoming harder to sustain due to society’s changing values and corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives.
“Today, companies prefer to spend their budget on projects that give their organizations a positive and socially responsible image,” said Ishii. “Budgets for CSR are increasing, but not for football. Right now, CSR and football don’t match.”
Meanwhile club teams, like Ishii’s Rise, must scramble to handle all aspects of the team by themselves, from merchandising to fan club administration, in addition to football operations. With their attention divided, club teams may not be able to produce the highest level of play on the field, which could slow the league’s efforts to gain traction with the public.
Football did crack into Japan’s headlines once. But to make matters worse for the sport, its 15 minutes of fame were more like 15 minutes of infamy.
In 2018, a video went viral of a Nihon University player’s horrific illegal hit that left its target crumpled on the ground. The cheap shot came from behind, long after the play had already finished. A coach allegedly ordered the hit, and the matter attracted much media attention.
Might that portray the sport as violent and dangerous, damaging its already tenuous reputation?
Kaoru Nakashima, a veteran cornerback for the X League’s Yokohama Harbors, doesn’t think so. To the contrary, Nakashima takes the “no such thing as bad publicity” approach.
“People started talking about football,” he said. “Some people never knew American football was played in Japan.”
Nakashima also denied that the incident made his family or friends worry about his participation in the sport. “The people around me already knew football is a very tough contact sport before the [Nihon University] accident happened,” he said.
So how, then, can football capture the imagination of the Japanese people?
“Our kids learn about relationships, about accepting failure, about being strong and learning to say ‘I want to be a champion!’”
Both Ishii and Nakashima suggested an increased media effort as a first step. Ishii discussed an improved social media approach. Nakashima echoed that idea, and also hoped for football to become the subject of a movie or TV drama, citing the success of “School Wars” (a Japanese TV series in the 1980s and ‘90s) in developing interest in rugby union.
Another path is for a Japanese football player to succeed on the international stage, and thus inspire the country to take interest. This avenue has seen two recent examples of success.
Following Japan’s surprising run at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, Nikkei Asia reported record attendance at professional rugby matches across the country, and the Rugby World Cup website reported that 1.18 million people took up the sport nationwide in the World Cup’s wake.
Similarly, when Japanese skateboarders earned three gold medals at the sport’s inaugural Olympic competition at the 2020 Tokyo Games, the Washington Post noted a spike in sales at skateboarding shops in Japan, as well as waitlists being created for skateboarding lessons to cope with the sudden demand.
Could a successful showing overseas bring that kind of attention to football in Japan? It’s an intriguing possibility.
The first step toward that has already materialized. Earlier this year, six Japanese football players were selected in the first-ever Global Draft of the Canadian Football League. Some of those players have earned modest playing time, while others were assigned to their respective teams’ practice rosters. The results were unexceptional, but it remains an encouraging step forward for Japanese football.
Ishii, the Nojima Sagamihara Rise’s general manager, puts this task at the feet of the next generation. He also oversees the Rise Academy, his team’s youth development program for children from age 4 through junior high school. But Ishii sees the program as more than no-tackle football lessons.
“Our kids learn about relationships, about accepting failure, about being strong and learning to say ‘I want to be a champion!’” Ishii said. “Having a purpose is an important thing in life. I want to tell kids that having dreams is very, very important. Let’s try your dream. Go overseas. Play in America. Over the top!”
Time will tell whether football can take the next step in Japan. If it does, it will be thanks to the tireless people who have built the sport’s infrastructure with their time, sweat and ceaseless passion.
If you live in the Kanto region and are interested in enrolling your child in the Rise Academy youth football program, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.© Japan Today