It was a Monday night, not a Super Sunday, but an estimated 100 people had assembled for a viewing party for Super Bowl XLIX between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on massive screens at a public viewing event in Tokyo.
There was a time when the NFL was closer to fans like these. In past years, they could have actually gone to an NFL game in Japan.
Unfortunately for Japanese NFL fans, it’s been a decade since Japan hosted an NFL game, an American Bowl preseason matchup between the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons at Tokyo Dome, a contest featuring Peyton Manning and Michael Vick.
Until that 2005 game, the American Bowl had been an almost annual event in Japan. Beginning in 1989, it was held 13 times (for eight years in a row between ’89 and ’96), some featuring traditional powerhouse teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Dallas Cowboys. For the 2003 edition, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who had just won the Super Bowl, played against the New York Jets.
There was also once a preseason game, called the Mainichi Star Bowl and contested between the St. Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers at Korakuen Stadium in 1976.
During Super Bowl week in 2010, in Miami, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was asked how the league would consider the Japanese market as part of its internationalization process. He responded, “We have some great fans over there who really understand the game of football. I think it is important for us to continue to be there.”
The reality is more like the opposite of what Goodell said. Since then, Japanese fans haven’t heard any speculation or rumor that the NFL is returning to Japan any time soon.
Koichiro Ikeda, a civil servant from Kashiwa, Chiba Prefecture, was one of the die-hard NFL fanatics at the public viewing party. The Arizona Cardinals fan said he would participate in flag football events that were attached to American Bowls with the elementary school team that he was coaching back when the games were played in Japan.
“It’s great that there’s an event like this (public viewing party) with all these NFL fans,” said Ikeda, who went to four American Bowls at Tokyo Dome. “But it’s certainly disappointing that we can’t have a taste of an NFL game firsthand any more.”
The American Bowl also gave top Japanese players opportunities to experience the NFL as well. To this day, no Japanese player has made an NFL 53-man roster.
Former NFL linebacker Adam Seward shared his personal opinions with The Japan Times, saying that he understands the feelings of Japanese fans, but that for the players, it’s not so simple to fly all the way to play a game in the Far East.
“I actually had some friends that played in that preseason game in Japan,” said Seward, who now serves as a coach for the Kyoto University football team.
“While some really enjoyed the experience, others weren’t so fond of it and couldn’t wait to get back to the United States.
“Though the time change was an issue, the tough part was being in an environment which differs significantly from the typical environment in the U.S. For a large NFL player, it can be tough to eat a Japanese diet, stay in a Japanese hotel room, and walk outside on narrow sidewalks, even if it is just for a few days.”
Also during the preseason period, teams call up numerous borderline players who are desperately fighting for spots on the 53-man roster, and Seward, 32, pointed out that coming to a foreign country to play one of those games could be a distraction for some of those players.
“Some of the players, those who are fighting to make an NFL team, have worked their whole lives for a chance to fulfill their NFL dreams,” said Seward, who mainly played for the Carolina Panthers during his five-year stint in the NFL. “The preseason games are crucial. One bad game may cost a player a job. Being put in a different country and expected to perform could very well be frustrating for an NFL hopeful.
“But, as someone who has worked for the NFL in Mexico and China, and now coaches football here in Japan at Kyoto University, I want to see the NFL come to these three countries as much as anyone.”
Meanwhile, former top Japanese player Masafumi Kawaguchi said that it’s certainly disappointing Japan no longer hosts an NFL game, but he thinks it’s because Japan failed to develop the sport’s popularity by cultivating a core fan base on its own.
“I understand the frustrations of the fans,” said Kawaguchi, who played for the Amsterdam Admirals of the now-defunct NFL Europe and competed in three American Bowls (for the Green Bay Packers, Cowboys and 49ers).
“But football is a game of tactics. That’s where you feel the fascination and it’s the commentators’ job to interpret (for the fans).”
Kawaguchi, who now appears on NFL game broadcasts for Japanese channels as a commentator, was critical of the way the game was presented, noting that football was often perceived as a complex game, and that the Japanese media didn’t educate new fans or try to turn casual fans into hard-core followers by breaking down those tactics when an NFL, and football in general, boom hit the nation back in the 1980s and 90s.
“They were just scratching the surface, like saying, ‘this guy’s huge!’ and ‘that guy’s fast!’ ” Kawaguchi, 41, lamented. “And that way, you’re not going to create core fans forever.”
Kawaguchi said that it’s indirectly affected those who actually play the game in Japan. He said that the NFL is a really lofty place for Japanese players to reach, but that they can still learn Xs and Os from the league.
Yet the thing is, he added, they don’t even watch the NFL.
“(The NFL) is presenting the best stuff (tactics), but they don’t watch,” Kawaguchi said. “That shows that the fascination of the tactics has not been gotten through (in their heads).”
A Japanese insider who has worked for the NFL said that the league hasn’t necessarily abandoned its expansion in Asia, but is currently putting focus on the West, namely London, and if it winds up having huge success there, then it’ll begin setting its sights on other places, including Asia.
Before then, maybe Japan needs to enlighten its casual fans a little bit more, so the nation will be a more attractive option for the league.
And as Kawaguchi pointed out, Japanese media should have a big role in making that happen.
“We are going to focus on what we can do to get there (Japan) with media because media is giving us more of an opportunity to reach those fans directly and we can get them engaged in the game that way,” Goodell said at the aforementioned Super Bowl.