Why Do Sports Anime Bomb In North America?

by Justin Sevakis,

Nick asked:

I have begun to wonder why sports anime tend to do so poorly in the United States? I know of a few (Prince of Tennis, Big Windup!) that were fairly popular in Japan but then flopped when released to the American market--thus the general aversion to dubbing sports anime by US companies. Are most American anime fans just not all that interested in sports? Or, do many not understand sports enough to become interested in these series? As it stands now, the only way a sports anime gets watched in the US is through Crunchyroll, Hulu, etc. Do you think there is any chance that another gets picked up for a North American release in the near future?

Well, never say never. A lot of shows that I thought would never get licensed have indeed been picked up for distribution in the US. License fees for older titles are pretty low, and subtitling an anime doesn't take very much money. If a title comes out and sells only a thousand units or so, it's worth putting out like that if the fee is cheap enough. But even that is a pretty high bar for many sports shows.

Generally, sports shows don't just bomb in the US, they bomb HARD. Big Windup! was a money loser for Funimation. Fighting Spirit (née, Hajime no Ippo) also tanked. Hoop Days (Dear Boys) did so poorly for Bandai Entertainment that they stopped releasing single volumes, back when everything got released as a single volume. Toei Animation USA's (badly-made) Slam Dunk DVDs sold in the double digits. The list goes on: Prince of Tennis, Hikaru no Go, EYESHIELD 21... even Initial D ended up disappointing. (Note that martial arts shows, which could be considered sports but still play into both Americans' love of violence and Eastern exoticism, tend to do OK.)

Now, we've seen what feels like pretty big counterevidence to this old truism lately. Free! is an obvious one, as is Yuri!!! on Ice. But these are shows that sold sex appeal first, largely created for the fujoshi crowd - it turns out that if you pack your show with cute boys (and a good story) people will show up. Burning sports drama can serve as a pretty compelling backdrop, but in most cases - not all, but most - the Western fans that show up to melt over cute, dramatic sports boys aren't then seeking out Gurazeni or Major 2nd or Ace of the Diamond or The Knight in the Area. It's no different for "sports anime" aimed at the male otaku crowd either - Keijo!!!!!!!! had some success here, and people did enjoy it because it turned out to be a pretty good sports anime, but the show was absolutely executed on the principle that the audience will come for the ass and then hopefully stay for the story. Most people didn't finish the last episode of Keijo!!!!!!!! and then flip on Giant Killing because they were in the mood for more sports drama, you know?

It's not just anime, either. Hollywood has grown wary of sports movies, having virtually stopped making them in the last few years because they just don't do very well. Sports TV shows tend to cling on for a while if they attract a devoted fanbase (see Friday Night Lights), but those could never be called "popular." Americans watch plenty of sports, but with the exception of a few movies here and there, tend to prefer ACTUAL sports rather than fictionalized sports stories. Add to that, the fact that most anime fans are somewhat on the nerdy side (and thus, as legend tells, tend to be uninterested in sports), and you pretty much have a recipe for potential failure.

I can't predict what the anime publishers will do, but if I were them, I probably wouldn't be dumping a lot of my resources into sports anime without a sexy hook. They might not be surefire failures, but they're still not very popular among American fans.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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