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LAND OF THE RISING PIGSKIN
John Underwood
November 03, 1980
The teams—Notre Dame and Miami—were imported and the fans were wet and bewildered, but if past form holds, they'll soon be chanting "We're No. 1"
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November 03, 1980

Land Of The Rising Pigskin

The teams—Notre Dame and Miami—were imported and the fans were wet and bewildered, but if past form holds, they'll soon be chanting "We're No. 1"

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After college, Fujita worked in sales and eventually as sales manager at a Tokyo television station. In 1976 he and his older brother Kiyoshi founded Tele Planning. He had seen the future: the value of hitching a wagon to the international sports comet, the potential in televising games and contests via satellite. "The future of Japanese television," he says, "is not Mork and Mindy, but sports and news—live events. We are 10 years behind the U.S. in television. When we catch up, I want to be ahead."

His first venture was the purchase of the rights to televise the first Ali-Patterson fight, for which he paid a paltry $2,000. To cover that (and more), he rounded up four Japanese sponsors. He made a lot of money. Other fights followed, then major golf tournaments, including the Masters and U.S. Open. His corporation mushroomed and was subdivided into a conglomerate that last year paid taxes on a $50 million gross. He says the special ingredient was the Japanese public's "fascination" with live telecasts—no matter the event, even if it didn't understand them. This, naturally, led him to American football.

Fujita saw his first football game on television "10 or 12 years ago." He didn't understand it. "I thought touchdown was an aeronautical term," he says. Mystified by its rules and disdainful of its "crazy specialization" (the numbing reality of doing the same thing over and over again, as, say, a right guard does), he nevertheless could appreciate its "noble stubbornness."

Vacationing in California a few years later, Fujita one day found himself between a choice of "drinking with my cronies," and thereby risking the disfavor of his wife, or accompanying her to Disneyland. He compromised and took her to a Rose Bowl game. There Fujita discovered football's "grandeur." He saw "an explosion of color" and a "dazzling coordination." He saw "the fantastic brute force." He saw a game that made a "very hard-hitting, very powerful" spectacle. In short, a terrific way to make a buck. When it took him 2½ hours to find his car afterward, he was hooked.

Soon enough he presented his concept to Mitsubishi: the complete packaging of a football game and all that he perceived should go with it, including parades and concerts and television specials. This in return for sponsorship. Mitsubishi had a new automobile to hawk. An agreement was quickly reached. Fujita set about "promoting hell out of the [car's] name." All summer he had people running around Japan with MIRAGE BOWL T shirts. "People asked, 'What's the Mirage Bowl?' " Fujita says, "We gave them the answer before the question." The first Mirage Bowl was played six months before the first Mirages rolled off the assembly line. "When they did, 80% of those who bought already knew the name." That, he says proudly, is "product awareness."

As Fujita goes on, Michi scribbles frantically on a note pad. He interrupts when the words outspeed his translation.

We become aware that others are still waiting for Fujita. A lovely, unusually tall Japanese woman wearing a picture hat and a red dress is poised nearby. We've already exceeded our allotted time. We begin saying our goodbys and get up to leave. Fujita tells us to sit down, there is more.

He says in the last four years he has made 23 trips to the U.S. to study football. On one of his first trips he learned of Grambling and its wonderful marching band. "I said, 'If you have such good band, do you also have a football team?' " Grambling's band marched in the first Mirage Bowl in 1977, and its team defeated Temple 35-32. Somebody told Fujita Grambling was "the black Notre Dame." He didn't know what that meant, but he made it his business to find out.

The following year he brought Temple back to play (and defeat) Boston College. This time he added the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders to the program. Clicking Nikons could be heard all the way to Hakone. Bulldozer was in high gear. He decided it was time to get the "white" Notre Dame.

"Japanese people are like American people," he tells us. (He is still ignoring the woman in red; we aren't doing as well.) "Japanese people love superstars. Nicklaus, Namath. Regardless of the cost, if you can get the best, it is good business."

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