Love (Live) and Basketball: How the School Idol System Reflects the NCAA

athletic kotori Kyuun~kyuun, kyuun~kyuun, my idol is an athlete.

Where I grew up, college sports weren’t a big thing (probably since where I grew up there were plenty of professional teams to follow). I was vaguely aware that college football and basketball were a big deal in other parts of the country, but it wasn’t something I paid any attention to. As such, it wasn’t until college, when I trekked about a thousand miles afield to pursue my degree, that I encountered the adoration of college sports. Adoration is a good word since, too, many of the avid fans were also fully convinced of the superiority of the NCAA* version of sport versus that of the professional. They spoke in serious tones about how college football, and to a lesser extent basketball, was so much better than the NFL or NBA because it was a “purer” version of the sport. These guys were playing for true love of the game, not for some ridiculous salary! They didn’t pitch hissy fits like profession athletes did, they weren’t full of themselves like those athletes were. It wasn’t a big money game with salary costs spiking up toward a billion dollars for a single season! These guys didn’t even get money from sales of merchandise emblazoned with their names! They just played. They played because they loved it. And, well, look, if they were really good they would get to be professional athletes themselves, and then they’d be able to make a ton of money, so it’s a perfectly fair system. And these fans were, then, “true” fans of the “true” sport. It wasn’t about money and personalities; they just followed the same team year in and out, no matter who was on it – they loved the sport for the sport itself.

(*I realize that some of my readers are likely not familiar with American college sports, so I’ll do a quick primer. There are many, many different versions of “college sports” in America, and there is also a lot of variation depending on the particular sport. The NCAA – National Collegiate Athletic Association – is a governing body, and it does cover some schools in Canada in addition to America; there is also collegiate athletic competition that exists outside of it, but it generally is much less formal and also has a much lower level of competitiveness. Within the NCAA, there are three levels of competition – Division I, II, and III, with I being the highest. Division I is what I’m talking about in this post, as Division I is the money-maker. I don’t want to go too much into the weeds on this, but, additionally, for football Division I is split into two more subdivisions; I’m talking about I-FBS, which is the higher of the two. Altogether, the NCAA had profits of roughly $870 million in the most recent fiscal year for which data is available, 2011-2012. Top coach salaries eclipse the $5 million mark; the hundredth highest salary for a Division I football coach in 2015 is $525,000. Not all of this is paid necessarily by the school, as alumni groups also often contribute to salaries, but the fact remains that the stuff is big business. Athletes do not have salaries, although some are on scholarships.)

All of this trickled back to me as I recently watched season two of Love Live! School Idol Project, culminating in the realization that the whole school idol set-up in Love Live’s world is the same set-up ideologically as NCAA sports. The structure of school idols and their competitive nature may differ somewhat from how codified it is in the NCAA, but, as odd as it may seem, this is really just a variance in window dressing as it is the ideology that sets the tone for the culture, which in turn enables the economics.

School idols are unpaid; they form their groups out of their own pursuit of fun, primarily, although it is coupled with a desire to make one’s school a desirable school. In the first season of LL, it is explicitly for the preservation of their school that the cast sets out to make a popular idol group. And, speaking of “popular”, the popularity factor itself is tied to something other than one’s own wish to be famous, which makes it an acceptable wish. Sure, we have someone like Nico who seems to have a personal interest in fame – although even this is sanded down as we watch her in her arc let go the fantasy she’s presented to her family in which she is the only game in town – but she is the exception, not the rule. The dispute over leader also supports this lack of self-interest on the parts of the idols, as no one other than Nico wants to be the leader (and Nico herself clearly believes that she cannot come right out and state directly that she wants to be such). Honoka by default becomes the leader, but she doesn’t proclaim herself it, and the decision is a tacit one by the remainder of the group after they agree with Honoka that there is no need for a leader. (Of course, this is a pretty common trope in storytelling and also in politics, that the best-suited leader is one who doesn’t want to be lead.)

So, our idols just want to be idols for the sake of being idols – and, when they don’t, it’s because they have the interest of something other than their own self at heart. To the school idol, being an idol is desirable because it is fun, not because they’re hoping to get money (or personal attention – the group is held up as number one) out of it. Nico somewhat reflects the fear of idol fans that the idols they love aren’t what they present themselves are, and might not be in it solely because they enjoy being an idol in and of itself. Her characterization doesn’t go quite the whole way (we never, for example, find out that she’s been shilling her own merchandise on the side), but we do watch her two different personae on display, to the extent, too, that we see things that aren’t shown to the rest of μ’s, such as her own internal plans to maneuver herself into the position of leader.

Speaking specifically of monetary gain, the school idol groups aren’t selling their songs, they aren’t selling their merchandise, and there is no prize money to be hard from winning the Love Live. The reward is getting to be an idol – getting to sing fun songs, getting to spend time with your friends, getting to make other people happy by singing and dancing for them. When we do spot some merchandise, its third party stuff in Akihabara, made without the knowledge or consent of the cast. Their reaction is of excitement, though – there is no sense on their part of resentment over other people making money off of their images.

As such, school idols are the “perfect” idols. They can only be idols because they enjoy being an idol; school idols do not go on to be regular idols. The group persists as people literally graduate, like is done with groups like AKB48, but they don’t graduate to become a solo artist who, inevitably, will reap more of the profits they generate than they can when they’re only one piece of a much larger group.

Unlike school idols, college football and basketball players generally have as their ultimate goal professional play. Despite rhetoric about athletes playing for the sheer love of the sport, there is self-interest involved past simply wanting to have fun. There is a tension in the fact that this is an undeniable fact, particularly given how massive of an event the draft is for the NFL, and for the NBA (to a lesser degree), but you won’t hear this from the true believers in the purity of college sport, nor will you typically hear it acknowledged by the sports media (even in discussions about top prospects heading into the draft). The league itself will only confess it if pressed, and its meant as a deterrent to questions about how ethical it really is to reap profits from unpaid labor. (By the way, one of the dirty secrets of the whole system is that very few of the schools actually make any profit themselves from their sports programs.)

The difference, then, for NCAA football/basketball and school idols is that as the latter is fictitious, it operates in a perfect universe where its participants genuinely aren’t seeking something “selfish”, whereas the former must make effort to preserve the illusion that enables it.

I don’t want to belabor the idea that student athletes are superior to professional ones because they allegedly aren’t participating for fame and fortune since I more or less covered that in the first paragraph, so I’ll touch on the way that they when grouped as teams work as tools for their academic institutions. While for some schools athletic programs act as direct money-makers, and for the NCAA itself the athletic events act as such as well, for most (Division I) schools it is intended as a recruiting tool. Typically[i], it works as a recruiting tool by having successful sports programs – teams that are regularly competitive despite a regular turnover of their roster. Successful sports teams can help set apart a school from others similar to it… much like how popular school idol groups can bring positive attention (and in the LL world, negative attention for school idols simply doesn’t exist) to a school and thus bolster applications and enrollment. And, again, what matters isn’t so much the individual faces (although thank goodness that college athletes don’t suffer from the same sameface syndrome school idols apparently do!) as the institution, i.e. the team. That the individuals don’t matter so much, too, helps underpin the whole thing, because if the individuals were what mattered, then picking out a school in part because of its basketball team, or its idol group, wouldn’t make sense – inevitably, the people you picked the school for in order to be in some proximity to will either be gone before you even get there, or will depart before you do. You’re not supposed to pick a school because All-American Classic Boy is on the football team; you’re supposed to pick a school because it has the All-American Classic Football Team (and everyone knows it can’t be an All-American Classic if it doesn’t win regularly).

This isn’t to say that fans never get attached to a particular college athlete (see: Tim Tebow); it’s just that they’re supposed to get more attached to a particular college’s team. At the end of the day, there will always be a quarterback, whatever his name is. If Love Live were a dynamic world and not a fixed one, I’m sure we would see fans getting attached to particular girls; but, again, the point is to attract people to the “brand”, not the spokesperson, so to speak.

Of course, μ’s itself sort of messes with this as they opt to retire the name of their group when the seniors graduate. (And, yes, I am aware of the fact that the movie gives some more life past the end of school for μ’s – but, hey, money talks for copyright holders even if it doesn’t for school idols, right?) But μ’s was always a special case, of sorts, since they were the particular group presented as the primary cast of Love Live as anime – and also in the mobile phone game, Love Live! School Idol Festival. It is also worth noting that they have no mechanism to actually enforce their decision other than by relying on the remaining six girls’ word, and this will quickly become useless as other girls join the idol club, ultimately relying on the kindness of others[ii]. ‘μ’s’ is not trademarked by the girls, and while there is an outside chance the school has trademarked it (and it would’ve were this the real world!), that still keeps control out of their hands (until Kotori inherits the school, I suppose).

On a last note, school idols can potentially raise the question that college athletics sometimes already does (and, which, incidentally, imperial Germany raised in the approach of WWI in its own form!) – is it a school with an idol group? Or an idol group with a school? (The question for Germany was whether it was a nation with a military, or a military with a nation.) But, of course, that would require an entirely different sort of franchise than what we have in Love Live.


[i] Occasionally you’ll see it used for recruiting in other ways, such as in the case of Brigham Young University’s willingness to suspend their star basketball player, Brandon Davies, for having violated the prohibition on premarital sex in the school’s honor code during the 2010-2011 season – despite much shock by the press and people outside the BYU community, suspending their star over allowing him to continue play was regarded as the better recruiting move since BYU’s claim to fame is being the Mormon university of choice

[ii] I find it very easy to see a young Blanche Dubois as an idol singer.

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