In the past year or so, the Japan Sports Agency, an external bureau of the education ministry, has discussed the potential establishment of “a Japanese edition of the NCAA” as part of its scheme to make college sports in this country more business-like.

That does not mean the agency only has profit in mind. Rather, any money made could be re-invested to improve collegiate sports, ultimately leading to a better overall university environment.

Since last summer, the University of Tsukuba and Dome Corporation, the licensed distributor for American sporting product company Under Armour in Japan, have run a joint research project with support from Temple University, to explore how collegiate athletic departments in the U.S. operate and make money, and how the system could translate to Japan.

The three entities made an initial report at the Temple University Japan Campus in Tokyo, inviting a pair of Temple professors and Yuhei Inoue, a Tsukuba alum who currently serves as assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, last month.

At a symposium for the interim report, the presenters emphasized that an athletic department brings college teams together under one umbrella and helps create funds for a university through collegiate sports.

Only a few Japanese universities currently have a unified athletic department. In Japan, forming a nationwide collegiate governing body like the NCAA (the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which oversees college sports in the United States) would be an important step toward reforming the nation’s collegiate sports, where teams are private organizations (the various sports teams at a school don’t usually share the same nickname, for example). But in order to make it work properly, setting up athletic departments at universities needs to happen first.

Jeremy Jordan, an associate professor for the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple, said that it’s essential for more Japanese universities to follow the few schools in Japan that have athletic departments before there is talk of forming a Japanese NCAA.

“I think what’s important is, you have multiple institutions that want to create the structure of an athletic department, that can then work together to create the rules and policies that will apply to competing in this part of that group,” Jordan said at the symposium. “Once you have enough institutions, they are moving in the same direction in terms of forming this college athletic department, and then you can start to create the larger governance structure.”

Daniel Funk, also professor for the School of Sport, Tourism and Hospitality Management at Temple, said that Tsukuba needs to be the leader in expanding the athletic department culture by getting other universities involved.

“There’s competition in sports,” Funk said. “Most sports needs two teams. If you have only one team, there’s no game.”

The project’s studies on U.S. university sports indicate that collegiate sports can provide multiple benefits for the schools, such as giving the students an identity and shared experiences, as well as branding and revenue. And athletic departments work as the beating heart of the system.

Funk insisted that creating athletic departments and a Japanese NCAA is not about “making money,” but is rather about “investing in the future.”

“Just as universities invest in a chemistry degree, or investing in having a math faculty, you are investing in bringing engineering students in, it’s investing in the future,” Funk said. “So it’s not about making money, it’s about creating revenue sources that allow you to make the chemistry major, engineering major appreciate going back to the university, meaning connecting between alums, who are now working in the community and giving back and then being an inspiration to the high school students who want to go to a university and have that feeling of belonging.”

Funk also said that collegiate athletics don’t just bring in funds but also help develop better people.

“It allows universities to enrich the lives of the future Japanese,” he said. “So for those naysayers (who say that having an NCAA-like governing body in Japan and athletic departments is all about making money), don’t you want well-balanced, holistic, well-educated students who then go on to become well-balanced, holistic citizens in Japan?”

Meanwhile, the purpose of the research project is to see what would work for athletics at Japanese universities, referring to some of the cases in the United States, but not copying them.

“We are in no way suggesting you are going to take what has been done in the United States, and implement it in Japan,” Jordan said. “You have to understand the nuances and differences that are here.

“But I think understanding what’s happened in the last 100 years in college sports in terms of the governance in the U.S., it’s helpful to Japan as they form their own structure. But it may have a different process of getting there in terms of how it’s running the governance.”

Tsukuba associate professor Tsuyoshi Matsumoto is also taking a central role in leading the joint research project, which continues through March.

Inoue is running case studies of the financial situations of the University of South Carolina, Old Dominion University and the University of Northern Colorado, which are different sizes. Inoue said that few Division I schools profited directly from their own athletic departments, and that researchers need to understand collegiate athletics from a broader view.

The final report on the research will be made after that.

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