In 2005, Publisher’s Weekly boldly proclaimed “Sports Manga Gets in the Game”, describing how one of the most popular genres on the Japanese market was finally getting its big push into the overseas English-language market. Now 10 years later, publishers are getting back in the game for what might be the final shot sports manga has at succeeding here.
Beginning in 2005, sports manga was introduced to the U.S. market in force as the latest Japanese manga trend to make the jump oversees. Buoyed by the growing manga market, many publishers crafted together initiatives to give sports manga the push they believed would attract readers to the genre. Publisher TokyoPop made a splash, bringing over series such as Intial-D and and Rebound (Also known as Harlem Beat), both of which would go uncompleted. Viz was the most notable proponent, bringing over a number of the most popular Japanese properties, notably The Prince of Tennis, Slam Dunk, and Eyeshield 21. These series were standouts in Japan, with Slam Dunk selling over 110 million copies as of 2015, and The Prince of Tennis a bonafide phenomenon, attracting its own musical and festival among other things. Put simply, these series were no slouches. To push them, Viz made partnerships with the biggest American sports leagues; Slam Dunk with the NBA, Eyeshield 21 with the NFL, and co-marketing with U.S.A. Soccer the launch of the soccer manga Whistle! during the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
Despite Viz’s efforts, their series failed to blow away or even meet expectations, and combined with the steep decline in the manga market from 2008-2013, the conventional wisdom came to say that “sports manga just doesn’t sell here”. The genre became a no-fly zone, with many publishers unwilling to even risk licensing new properties. Faced with a declining market and a genre that just didn’t catch on, even Viz became reluctant to continue, with its 2011 release of Mitsuru Adachi’s masterpiece Cross Game becoming one of its only new sports series in recent years. Notably, publishers such as Kodansha Comics USA have openly stated that as the market currently stands, they would need significant evidence of the genre selling before considering licenses. So, what happened the first time around?
Why did sports manga fail to take off? Vertical Comics’ Ed Chavez has some ideas, which he shared in a post earlier this year. First of all, it’s an undisputed fact in the industry that manga sell much, much better when they are accompanied by an anime adaption. While most of the series published did have anime adaptions (and popular ones at that), it’s notable that Viz started publishing them before their anime adaptions really built up a fanbase. As a result, these series did not have the type of popular exposure they would have had if they had arrived after an anime adaption.
Chavez further argues that sports fiction is by default an uncertain sell, and that sports fiction in any medium typically doesn’t do very well. (As anyone who witnessed Friday Night Lights’ struggle for ratings survival despite being arguably one of the best shows on television can relate to) This is also supported by Sean Michael Robinson of the Hood Utilitarian, who states:
“With the exception of some very popular young adult sports fiction in the fifties and sixties, there’s not a very long tradition of sports fiction in America, and certainly little to no tradition of sports comics.“
Put succinctly, David Welsh of the Manga Curmudgeon also adds that
Purely based on my own experience, comic books were something you were interested in instead of sports, not in addition to sports. Being a gifted jock isn’t routinely an aspirational thing for comics fans here, I don’t think. Since comics reach a less specific audience in Japan, there’s more crossover between the kids who read them and the kids who admire sports stars or want to be them, possibly since comics are significantly less uncool among kids in Japan and (I suspect) professional jocks aren’t quite as glorified there. Source
Chavez also noted that the cultural divide between Japanese and American readers, arguing that the difference between the structure of Japanese high-school sports is a barrier towards starting to read. Furthermore, fans of sports manga are fragmented to a high degree, as people are drawn to series based around a familiar sport. It’s clear that the odds are stacked against the success of the genre, and even in 2005 the Vice President of Diamond Comics offered some of the same concerns that eventually played out to a degree. So, why after 8 years of the genre being neglected is it finally receiving another chance?
The first reason is that the manga market is finally on the upswing again, with 2015 marking the second year in a row the market has grown. This has resulted in more licenses, and publishers being able to take more risks. The first major indication of sport manga receiving another shot came from Yen Press, who licensed the series Yowamushi Pedal for release staring in this month.
Yen Press’ Publishing Director Kurt Hassler is bullish on Yowamushi Pedal’s chances, feeling that now is the right time to challenge the notions of what the North American market can support. This was the first major sports property licensed in a long time, and represented a major risk on Yen Press’ part considering the length (currently at 42 volumes) and the niche nature of a bicycling manga. Yowamushi Pedal is about a young otaku who become a cyclist, and its anime adaption has gathered an enormous following as noted by Hassler, making it a strong candidate for licensing. The particulars of this story might also help to explain why it became a candidate for licensing, as one might argue that because the story is about an otaku learning to cycle rather than your typical high-school sports club, it avoids the “gifted jock” problem described by Welsh above.
It seemed like Yowamushi Pedal might stand unique as a recent sports manga license, but arguably the biggest shots were fired in October at New York Comic Con, where Viz announced it had licensed two of the biggest sports manga properties in Japan right now; Haikyu!! and Kuroko’s Basketball. Both Kuroko’s Basketball and Haikyu!! have strong fanbases domestically which Viz is undoubtedly banking on to support the series. Furthermore, the recent upswing in the North American anime market and the strong and popular adaptions each series have received should certainly be considered indicators of why Yen Press and Viz decided to finally take a chance on sports manga with these series.
As Chavez concludes, it’s clear that for sports manga to succeed, it needs to be sold in the right way. The marketing of Cross Game may be an early recognition of this by Viz, as the story was sold as a “heartfelt coming of age story”, downplaying the actual sport element involved.
However, it’s probably safest to say that sports manga will live and die this time around based on the willingness of fans of their anime adaptions to support the manga releases. This is the biggest point on differentiation this time around, as each of these three series have dedicated fanbases who enjoyed the anime adaptions, making each property relatively well-known and positioned to succeed. Time will tell if the fans of Yowamushi Pedal, Haikyu!! and Kuroko’s Basketball will come out in force to support these releases but considering the popularity of these series, they have about as good a chance as any have had in recent years. The future of sports manga in the English market likely depends on it.
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