It seems odd for any new season of anime to not feature at least one sports-related series on its list given how popular sports anime and manga have become. Tsurune, an anime about archery, will return for a second season, and the girls' judo anime Mou Ippon! will make its premiere in the recently launched Winter 2023 schedule.
Even in anime, it can be difficult for fans to find a significant sports demographic, but Mou Ippon! might be able to change that. It's incredibly uncommon to find a sports series with a female lead or starring a ladies' team, despite the vast selection of anime available.
Rarely Does the Frequently Targeted Shonen Demographic Fit Female-Led Sports Anime
As of January 2023, MyAnimeList boasts a total of 749 anime tagged as a sports series. However, one doesn't have to peruse the whole collection to see a disparity. Within the first 50 alone, fewer than ten entries star a female protagonist. Three of these entries are the individual installments of Chihayafuru, a josei series featuring the Japanese card game karuta. If these three seasons are all counted as one entry, the numbers look even worse. For anime fans who enjoy sports and want to see female-led stories, there's comparably very few to choose from. There could be a number of causes for this, but a few stand out from the crowd.
One of the biggest reasons for the lack of female characters in sports series comes down to the audience creators make them for. While sports titles can be found across all demographics, the majority of their anime and manga fall under the shonen demographic, which is targeted at middle and high-school-age boys. Because of this, the most common protagonist in shonen is someone the target audience can relate to: a boy within the same age range.
When it comes to other demographics, pickings can be slim. Seinen has the next highest quantity, including titles like All Out!! and Hanebado!. Shojo has a sizable collection of sports series, but most of those were produced over 30 years ago. Josei has the fewest sports series, with its only popular entry being Chihayafuru. Different demographics have the potential to tell stories from different perspectives, and several other genres have gotten this treatment. There are shonen romances and coming-of-age stories featuring girls, so shojo and josei sports should also get the spotlight.
Women's Sports Need More Support, and There Should Be More Anime Adaptations of Them
Unfortunately, this disparity highlights the sad reality that women's sports are not as popular or respected around the world. Men's games are more widely consumed overall than women's, even if they're playing the same sport. Female athletes are paid less than their male counterparts, and stories of their achievements are less covered by the media. While these numbers are improving, the fact still remains -- and could also contribute to why girls' sports anime are less common.
Another big issue is that, in several of the female-led sports series available, the focus is not the sport they're playing. Keijo!!!!!!!! is a good example of this. It's a highly rated series under the sports genre about an all-female team, but it isn't quite regarded as a sports anime like Slam Dunk or Haikyuu!!. To the anime community at large, Keijo!!!!!!!! is a fan service anime that happens to include a sport where the focus is the characters' bodies. The same applies to shows like Harukana Receive and Bakuon!!, in which the sport is used more as a way to get the girls in titillating positions than anything else. They may explore the sport, but that isn't why most of the viewers are watching.
Of course, this can also be said for sports anime with male leads. The swimming-themed series Free! is the most notorious for this, but other titles like Yuri!!! on Ice and Tsurune continue the trend. That said, there are plenty of sports anime featuring male leads where the female gaze is not applied. Stories such as Slam Dunk focus on the sport and the characters improving their skills. The same should be said about sports anime led by girls, but it currently cannot.
This issue isn't as simply solved as fixing the fan service factors, but higher quantity tends to lead to more variety. With any luck, series like Mou Ippon! and other future female-led sports anime will continue to boost their popularity to whole new levels.