Leave it to the NFL to take something it has done 11 times before, give it a makeover, and turn it into a huge success.

News photoJapan’s Yoshinobu Imoto hauled in a 44-yard pass reception for the New York Jets late in the fourth quarter of last Saturday’s American Bowl at Tokyo Dome to highlight a very successful evening for the NFL.

That is what we saw with the first Saturday night American Bowl played in Japan last weekend. All of the previous games (10 in Tokyo, one in Osaka) were played at the undesirable hour of 11:00 a.m on a Sunday morning.

It is tough enough to get up and out the door by that hour, much less all the way to Tokyo Dome for an early kickoff. The NFL knew it was time for a change and made a smart move which made the game appeal to a wider audience.

This year the game started at 6:00 p.m. and the place rocked from beginning to end as the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the New York Jets 30-14 in the NFL’s preseason opener.

A vocal crowd of more than 43,000 turned out for the contest, which featured a pre-game tailgate party and a halftime performance by the band Cheap Trick.

The teams helped out with inspired play, capped off by the 44-yard pass reception by Jets wide receiver Yoshinobu Imoto late in the fourth quarter that fired up the Japanese fans in attendance.

What I like about the NFL’s approach, is that they are willing to take input from the locals on how to make something better and act on it. As we know all too well in these parts, when it is the other way around, the locals usually don’t want to hear it.

Take Japanese baseball for example. The sport is crying out for an injection of something new that can make it more appealing. Yet for years, almost nothing in the way of marketing has been done to help attract more than the core group of fans to the games.

Bat Day, Ball Day, Batting Glove Day. Ever hear of any of those here?

Yeah, me neither.

Group ticket sales? Sounds like a foreign concept.

It sort of reminds me of the Japanese economy. None of the politicians seem to have a real plan to revive it, so they are all just waiting around and hoping, by some miracle, it gets better. Not a very good strategy, to say the least.

At last year’s game in Osaka, some Japanese executives in attendance mentioned to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue that it would be a much better draw if the game were “played on a Saturday night.”

The commissioner, being the wise man that he is, took the suggestion to heart — even though it meant giving up a live Saturday night telecast of the game on ESPN back in the States.

He knew that it was a good idea, and instead of coming up with an excuse not to do it, like a true CEO, he made the change.

In addition to making the American Bowl a better attraction for the younger crowd, playing the game at night also solved another problem that had plagued past editions.

By starting in the evening, it made the game more enjoyable inside the dome, where in past years the heat of the day seemed to come right through the walls and make the place feel like a steam bath.

This time, the players even seemed more energetic than in years past, and I am convinced the evening kickoff had a lot to do with it.

While it is always a treat to see the NFL in person, I am hoping that someday the league will move the game out of a domed stadium and play it on grass, so Japanese fans will get to see the game the way it is supposed to be played.

What I would like to see is a Saturday night game played at International Stadium Yokohama, which hosted the World Cup Final last year.

I think that would add even more to the atmosphere. Real football on real grass. Then as an added treat for the Japanese fans, throw in a big fireworks show after the game is over.

It could be a three-for-one deal. An American football game, a halftime concert and a pyrotechnic extravaganza.

Sounds good to me. Now let me see if I can get the commissioner’s ear.

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