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Why can't we get some popular sports anime with female leads?
As a woman who grew up in a sport-loving household and around sports-loving boys, I get that it's a reality of the world that women's sports see considerably less funding and promotion than their male counterparts. In general, men are considered the target audience for live sports viewing, and we live in a world where young boys are taught from a young age that women are not only inherently worse at sports, but that it's wrong for a boy to grow up interested in things designed for women. Men's soccer teams on TV are considered the default — because surely they must play more interesting games, and only women would watch women's games, so men shouldn't watch them. They get lower views, less funding, and are considered a side diversion rather than the primary way of enjoying those sports.
We live in a world where, no matter how talented a female athlete might be, chances are she'll be taken less seriously by audiences, and that's a real shame. Lessons taught to boys from a young age tell them sports are for them, and girls are bad at sports, so we see a self-fulfilling prophecy, where women's sports are underfunded and under-presented.
However, while men are largely considered the target audience for live sporting events, there is an area of sports entertainment that undoubtedly has developed a dramatically larger female viewing audience in the past few years: the world of sports anime.
If you've never watched a sports anime before, here's the general gist. Series typically take a real-world sport, anything from basketball to cycling, and follow a small handful of competitors trying to win competitions, ranging from school tournaments right up to international events. The plot follows the emotional narratives of these characters on and off the court, giving them room to learn new techniques, express their emotional state, and come up against challenges to overcome before game day. The genre slows down the action at tense moments during matches, explaining the mechanical challenges facing our players, and breaks down the rules of the sport into an underdog narrative that has more context than watching the sport in real-time. It's a genre that builds player narratives into the core of moment to moment sporting activity.
I love watching sports anime, and as a woman, I am statistically not alone in that love. The biggest sports anime of the past five years in English language countries, including the swimming anime Free!, the Volleyball Anime Haikyuu, and the ice skating anime Yuri on Ice, all enjoy viewing audiences that are around 85% or more women, in stark contrast to the audience demographics of live-action real-world sports. These highly popular sports anime all have a few things in common, the development of healthy supportive relationships between their male leads, emotionally rich rivalries, friends going through tough situations together, and learning to work as a team. While the series are all, to varying degrees, action-packed, with segments of time dedicated to high-tension sporting events, they spend an equally large amount of their time stopping to talk about the feelings of their characters, something more common in anime traditionally targeted at women.
With this all said, the most popular sports anime series being released today are mostly being watched by women, which to me begs its own question: Why are we not seeing more big successes in the genre with female characters front and center?
Looking at sports anime as a genre, a slightly depressing reality is that we did have one example of a successful female-fronted sports anime back in 2016: Keijo. Rather than being a serious look at the trials and tribulations of trying to be successful at a real-world sport, Keijo was known as the "butt sport" anime. It featured women in revealing swimsuits trying to knock each other butt first into water off of floating platforms and featured heavy science-fiction elements too. One player had an attack where she summoned a wall of 1,000,000 butts from past battles to make use of their techniques. It was pure fan service primarily aimed at straight men and is certainly not an example of what I want to see from female-centric sports anime success stories of the future.
If we look back to the '90s, when sports anime and manga were plentiful but didn't yet have mainstream audience appeal in English language territories, there were a higher number of examples of sports anime with female leads, and narratives built with the structure of today's big hits. Released in the late '90s, Princess Nine is a baseball anime that probably comes the closest to feeling like modern sports anime, but with female leads. The series follows a women's baseball team attempting to prove they can play on par with the men's league at the national level and features a huge number of the same narrative arcs and character archetypes as the hits of today. If you can track down a copy, it is well worth a watch.
And this isn't to say women's focused sports anime isn't being made today, and out there to watch if you don't mind subtitles. Hanebado is a badminton anime released back in 2018 that focuses on a female lead over its short run, and it's really lovely. My question is why these stories about women in sports are not blowing up more with female audiences. There's this sense that for a women's sports anime to succeed in English it has to sexualize its characters and appeal to a male audience like Keijo, rather than simply being allowed to flip the existing formula employed by hits like Haikyuu onto a female cast.
And honestly, think of the missed opportunities here, as well as the sports that simply would work better in an anime setting with female casts. Give me a roller derby anime with a cast of mainly queer women, where the fact that everyone has neon-bright colorful hair is fitting with the real-world sport. Let women on skates beat each other up at high speed with the risk of a bad fall and a fractured rib always on the forefront of the viewer's mind.
Give me a women's soccer anime that follows the arc of the most recent World Cup teams, and we see the team's rise to glory, performing better at Nationals than their male counterparts. Show me the drama when the better-paid team feels they have been outshone.
Show me a women's golf anime, where the protagonist grows up using her dad's incorrectly sized clubs, and as soon as she gets her hands on a set properly made for her begins to have more control of where she places her shots. Show me the tension as a ball hits the lip of the hole and teeters on the edge for what feels like minutes before finally falling in and securing her the win.
Sports anime are honestly fantastic at telling stories that interweave personal emotional drama with the action of sports, not to mention the ability to slow down and explain what's happening in a given moment. With such a wide audience of women watching animated sports, I just want my all-female roller derby anime, please. Is that too much to ask?