Ed from Vertical wrote a blurb about sports anime and manga and it is, in my opinion, the baseline. He covered a few things that are challenges or causes why sports anime/manga just don’t take off in the States.
Viz tried promoting Slam Dunk with the NBA. That didn’t work. They marketed Whistle! with US Soccer before a World Cup. That didn’t work. They partnered with the NFL for Eyeshield. That didn’t work. Were their plans perfect? No. But they sure tried and with some of the biggest brands in sports. Sports anime rarely seems to work in English. So tying in anime fans to their respective manga is almost pointless.
Story-wise most sports anime are high school based. That poses a problem cause the structure is different for sports in Japan vs the US. Sports in the US are league based, so teams play full seasons before a playoff tournament. In Japan high schools are almost entirely tournament only. So where in the US kids train thru playing games; in Japan they train to play games. Also as these works are fiction there is a lack of familiarity with characters and teams. It may be hard for casual readers to understand the rules of certain games if they aren’t already fans of that sport.
I would also say there might be some social resistance as faces and names are not what people see from their heroes in the US.
If you drill down on examples, yeah, Slam Dunk, Eyeshield, etc all have additional factors and issues as far as why nobody gave them a damn outside of Asia, but a fundamental one is the contextual one. Just like sports culture is ingrained in America mainstream consciousness, the same is for Japan. And when Japanese writers create sports stories they rely on those assumptions and cultural norms, which often don’t translate well to the States. High school level sports organization is entirely a different bag than the Japanese one for all the popular sports like baseball, basketball, etc.
I’m thinking these differences even comes down to what people are looking for in entertainment in terms of narratives involving sports. Why do people read ESPN? SI? Or write Breaking Madden? Or watch 30 for 30? I don’t know, but I feel that’s kind of the mentality that ultimately has to be catered to for Americans to care about sports fiction.
And in order to get over that hurdle, maybe what it takes is either for people to buy in on the context (eg., anime fans who dig characters and the tournament plot), or for people who are in for the giggles and can live without it (eg., Shaolin Soccer). It’s like sports comedies.
It makes me wonder if anime/manga sports comedies actually have a shot at making it in the States. It’s never been done in a serious way, as far as I know. And probably not something like Teekyuu…
I wonder how anime/manga fans would feel about something like Friday Night Lights. Or maybe if someone made a manga adaptation. That’s the kind of issues, I am assuming, that western audiences of “sports” media would enjoy.
At any rate, I think we all need to understand this before going forward. Maybe it doesn’t really mean much; what are hits are hits. I do know that in general I don’t enjoy sports manga mainly for these kinds of reasons. The narratives about real life sports leagues, teams and players are so much better than what Japan’s fictional ones have to offer, partly because the fictional ones are usually about something else entirely different.