The sports genre in anime has persevered in Japan. Slam Dunk, Prince of Tennis, and Hikaru no Go are all considered classics in its native country…Outside eastern waters? Not so much. Video sales for Slam Dunk and Prince of Tennis were decent at best but Hikaru no Go bombed…and so did Big Windup!, Princess Nine, and any other sports anime that were eventually licensed by American publishers. So for a while, even as new sports anime continued to be produced in Japan, choosing to play it safe, American publishers chose to ignore these shows in favor of genres and franchises that were more likely to succeed.
In 2012, the anime adaptation of Kuroko no Basuke aired and the sports genre slowly seemed to be regaining its ground among western viewers. It wasn’t enough, however, and it took about about eight years before the first volume of the manga was released in English…And the anime still hasn’t been picked up for home video release by any American publishers…No, the first sports anime to be released in home video in English after several years would be Free!
Much like how Madoka Magica shifted the magical girl genre’s target audience, the same could be said for Free! The anime market noted that a large majority of the fans for sports anime like Prince of Tennis and Kuroko no Basuke were female. Why? Because majority of its cast are attractive males. Indeed, most female fans in the series didn’t come for the sport, they came for the pretty boys and the homoerotic subtext that came with having a large male cast.
Free! made its target audience very clear from the very first episode and in its wake, brought about not just more sports anime populated by pretty boys with copious amounts of homoerotic subtext, it also brought about a slew of shows centered around pretty boys doing…well, stuff. Ranging from club activities to performing magical boy activities, really, what Free! proved most was that there were female anime fans out there that had deep pockets just waiting to spend their money on tie in merchandise and collector’s goods.
Haikyuu!! also played a part in the revival of sports anime in the west. What set it apart from its fellow shounen sports series was how much more realistic the character designs and game plays were. Accompanied by an exciting soundtrack and dynamic animation courtesy of Production IG, Haikyuu proved to be a big enough success for it be released in home video format in the west and for its manga to be translated in English before Kuroko no Basuke’s first volume.
At this point, it’s hard to tell who sports anime are really catering to. Most of them are still published in shounen magazines and its still garners a large amount of male fans. But its merchandise and official art tend to appeal more towards its female fans. You’re more likely to see a figurine, posters, or even hugging pillows of the male characters compared to the handful of female ones. But whatever warrants sales, I guess?