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[ODDS and EVENS] Dream Bowl a Vital Catalyst for American Football's Growth in Japan

The Dream Bowl represented an opportunity for Japan to plant the seeds of American football for this era and beyond, to grow the sport and renew interest.

To improve in any sport, it's important for athletes and teams to face tough competition, and that's what the 2023 Dream Bowl represented for the event's host nation.

American football is a niche sport in Japan. There have been limited opportunities for Japanese players and teams to test their skills against foreign teams.

Which is why an event like the Dream Bowl, officially dubbed the Japan US Dream Bowl 2023, was a dream for the X League's players and coaching staff on Sunday, January 22 at Tokyo's National Stadium. 

It was an important event, too, with more than 50 X League players and six university student-athletes selected to compete for the Japan All-Stars against the Ivy League All-Stars, who won 24-20.

Who played in the game? 

Most of the Japan All-Stars roster was comprised of ex-college players continuing their careers in the X League and working as company employees, whereas the Ivy League squad had former and current players from the eight Ivy League schools.

Kudos to the X League, for recognizing the significance of Sunday's event, which attracted a crowd of 12,000-plus spectators.

A spot-on perspective was shared on the X League's official Twitter account after the game.

"Thank you, Ivy League All-Star Team," read the tweet. "It was a great asset for us to be able to host an international match in Japan. ⁡We'll grow and raise the level of football in Japan."

Above all, in my view, the Dream Bowl represented an opportunity for Japan to plant the seeds for this era and beyond, taking steps to grow the sport competitive-wise and renew fan and media interest.

NFL's Presence in Japan Has Diminished

In recent years, Japan has been dormant as a location for a major event in the sport.

For instance, the NFL hasn't held an exhibition game in Japan since the Atlanta Falcons and Indianapolis Colts squared off in October 2005 at Tokyo Dome.

The first NFL preseason game in Japan was held in 1976 between the St Louis Cardinals and San Diego Chargers at now-demolished Korakuen Stadium. And throughout the 1990s and early part of the 21st century, the NFL played a preseason game nearly every year at the Big Egg.

Regrettably, fans haven't had a chance to attend a game featuring teams from the world's best football league in Japan in nearly 20 years. The NFL's global strategy to grow its fan base in Asia shifted to China and elsewhere.

Credit the Ivy League, the X League and the Japan American Football Association for having the vision to hold this international showcase, hammering out an agreement to hold the Dream Bowl.

It's a relaunch of sorts for American football in Japan  ― if organizers can capitalize on the positive momentum from this game being held and carry it over to next year and for years to come. In other words, re-establishing the sport as a part of Japan's calendar of international events.

Japan All-Stars player Victor Mitchell Jr sprints en route to a third-quarter touchdown. (ⒸSANKEI)

Benefits of International Competition

Coaches, players, fans and the media all benefited from having this game in January.

Just ask Ivy League All-Stars head coach Al Bagnoli, who was in Japan in June 2004 for the Ivy-Samurai Bowl, a now-defunct college football showcase for players from both nations.

Bagnoli is a football lifer, serving as Columbia University's head coach since 2015. He brought 40 years of coaching experience to the forefront for the Dream Bowl ― and with it a keen ability to make quick, astute evaluations about what he's witnessed on the gridiron.

So how does Bagnoli compare American football in Japan in 2004 versus 2023?

"I think the quality of play, the quality of players, the offense, the defense, the kicking, the [overall] system are all improving," Bagnoli was quoted as saying by the X League website after the game.

Bagnoli added, "It is important to have the younger generation play American football and nurture the younger generation."

For many years in Japan, similar opportunities existed in the past for collegiate players, when the Epson Ivy Bowl was held from 1989-96. It pitted Ivy League All-Stars against Japanese college All-Stars in games held in Yokohama, Tokyo and Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture.

In the first Ivy Bowl, William & Mary (instead of a squad featuring players from all of the conference's teams) pounded the Japan All-Stars 73-3. The Ivy League All-Stars won the final Ivy Bowl 35-16 in December 1996 at Hankyu Nishinomiya Stadium.

The Japan All-Stars stand on the field after the game. (ⒸSANKEI)

It's just a shoe!

Dedicated to Improvement

Nearly three decades later, after seeing the Japan All-Stars clash with the Ivy League All-Stars, Yo Yamamoto, who coached the host nation's club, offered his perspective on the game and the week's team-building activities.

"I would like to thank everyone who worked hard to hold today's game, as well as the players and staff of the Ivy League for their hard work," Yamamoto was quoted as saying after the game on the X League website.

"The Japanese team worked hard to build a team through five days of practice, aiming for victory, but it turned out to be a disappointing result," added Yamamoto, who guided the Fujitsu Frontiers to back-to-back Rice Bowl victories in 2022 and 2023. With those wins, Fujitsu earned X League supremacy and a pair of coveted national titles.

"We didn't didn't reach our goal, but I think we were able to [compete] head-on," Yamamoto reflected after the four-point loss in the Dream Bowl. "There are some parts where we lost physically, so I want to accept the loss and connect it to the next [game]."

What did the Dream Bowl teach Yamamoto and the Japan All-Stars coaching staff and players?

"Playing these games gave us an idea of where we were at," Yamamoto remarked. "It is important that each individual, including our coaching staff, grow without being satisfied with this."

Japan All-Stars receiver Riki Matsui attempts to make a catch in the first quarter. (ⒸSANKEI)

Dream Bowl Delivered Many Highlights

In an entertaining game, both All-Star squads had their fair share of big plays.

Kicker Shintaro Saeki, who plays for the X League's Panasonic Impulse, gave the Japan All-Stars a 3-0 lead on a 30-yard field goal on the game's opening drive. Trashaun Nixon, a Fujitsu standout, had a 19-yard run to move Japan into field-goal range.

Running back Allen Smith, who led the Ivy League with 107.7 all-purpose yards per game during his senior season at Brown University in 2022, gave the Ivy League All-Stars their first lead (7-3). Smith scored on a 1-yard TD run in the first quarter.

The Japan All-Stars pulled within 7-6 on Saeki's second field goal, a 40-yard kick, in the second quarter. 

In the third quarter, quarterback Tsubasa Takagi, who plays for the Frontiers, tossed a 39-yard TD pass to Victor Mitchell Jr as the Japan All Stars took a 13-7 lead.

Ivy League All-Stars running back Isaiah Malcome gained 45 yards rushing in the Dream Bowl. (ⒸSANKEI)

Ex-University of Pennsylvania running back Isaiah Malcome's 2-yard TD extended the Ivy League All-Stars' lead to 20-17 with under 2 minutes left in the quarter.

Malcome rushed for 719 yards in 10 games as a senior in 2022. He also led Penn with seven touchdowns.

Former Penn quarterback Ryan Glover turned the tide, however, scrambling for an 18-yard TD run in the fourth quarter at the 4:06 mark. After Alexander Felkins booted the extra point, the Ivy League All-Stars led 24-17.

Stepping Up and Looking Ahead

Glover's favorite target in the game was former Penn wide receiver Ryan Cragun, who finished with 10 catches for 175 yards.

Malcome was named game MVP after amassing 85 yards (45 rushing, 40 receiving) on offense and 52 more yards as a punt returner.

After the game, Japan All-Stars linebacker Shoki Cho reflected on what he felt is an important takeaway for all of the host nation's players moving forward.

"I would like each of us to bring back what we felt today ... and seek a way to compete against the United States," Cho, a Fujitsu standout, told reporters. "If there is an opportunity like this again, I would like to [participate] and strengthen that part [of our team]."

Author: Ed Odeven

Find Ed on JAPAN Forward's dedicated website, SportsLook. Follow his [Japan Sports Notebook] on Sundays, [Odds and Evens] during the week, and Twitter @ed_odeven

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