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How hard should it be to get a ticket to see sumo?

by Mark Buckton

Earlier this year, Kokonoe Oyakata, former yokozuna Chiyonofuji, was appointed head of the Nihon Sumo Kyokai’s (NSK) Public Relations Department.

At the time, many in the sumo following world likely breathed a collective sigh of relief as the second most successful yokozuna in sumo history taking up the post meant the stepping aside of Takasago Oyakata. To date, however, under Kokonoe, nothing has really changed, and if anything, the issue of ticket sales and putting bums on seats has only gone downhill.

Imagine you want to buy a ticket to watch sumo. Perhaps as part of a day out with the family or an outing with work clients. You are told that ticket sales are scheduled to start on a given day at a given time, and so, cash or credit card in hand, you head down to the main sumo arena in Tokyo — the Ryogoku Kokugikan — only to be met by the sight of thousands of other folks with the same goal in mind.

As you walk toward the back of the line you notice a few folks are talking about their “number” and the hour they had to be up to get in line the previous morning just to obtain that “number” determining their place in line today. Let me repeat that — the time they had to be up the previous day — to get in line today!

For whatever reason, it appears that the governing body of professional sumo has this year opted to add a large dollop of inconvenience to already overpriced tickets in an apparent bid to reduce attendance figures further. Wouldn’t a campaign to fill seats at this point in time better aid their existence?

At present, the recent need to get up at an ungodly hour one day to be given a ticket that will enable you to repeat the process the day after has only seen lengthy queues — some individuals lining up overnight — but still no real change in total ticket sales if you take a look at the ticket-availability board hanging outside the stadium.

It is true that tickets for the final day of action for the upcoming Natsu Basho did go at breakneck speed, but at time of writing, not one other day of the 15 is completely sold-out. Most days have hundreds, if not thousands, of seats remaining on the second floor, and large numbers of masu-seki boxes capable of holding an average of four people each on the first floor.

Almost on cue, though, having seen reports of fans spending the night outside the stadium, many have opted to spread talk of a “boom” that just isn’t there in terms of real-time sales. Yet, for some reason talk persists of today’s ticket sales being comparable to the 1990s when yokozuna siblings Wakanohana and Takanohana could have filled the 46,000 capacity Tokyo Dome were they to compete on the pitcher’s mound.

Why, it must then be asked, if things are indeed so similar to the ’90s did a seller in the NSK ticket office inform me that there were still many tickets to be had for all days bar senshuraku — several days after the last of the early number-clutching crowds had dispersed?

Front-row tickets had sold out each day, but in the purpose-built stadium that can seat 11,092, 20 of just 50 books of tickets that go for a discounted price of ¥20,000 and offer access every single day of action remained gathering dust in a box by the seller’s window. Wouldn’t these relatively cheap ticket options have gone on the first day of sales were things really out of control and fans gagging to see sumo once more?

The lines and the reports of the tickets becoming harder to get just don’t add up when balanced against reality.

Add to this whole detachment from reality the “language factor” *or rather lack of, as any purchases must be made in Japanese only — ironically a condition written in perfect English on the main Sumo Association Web site), and you have a joke wrapped in a comedy!

It is an undeniable fact that more and more of today’s fans are single-time visitors from overseas; constituting, at a guess, 10 percent upward of the crowd on a Saturday or Sunday. Even with this obvious indicator of the global appeal of sumo, such a linguistically challenged sales strategy is maintained.

Today, kabuki is part and parcel of many trips to Japan. So too, in recent years, are visits to see the sumo, and it is to its iconic cultural brother of kabuki that Kokonoe would do well to turn for advice on how to better offer access to his own field. Huge numbers of Japanese and non-Japanese visitors alike arrive ticket-less to see the one-act makumi shows at the Kabuki-za so Shochiku, the company in charge, must be doing something right.

What do Shochiku know that the NSK does not? Of course, like kabuki, the vast majority of foreign visitors will never see sumo live more than once, but that is an observation also true of most Japanese visitors to the Kokugikan, and few people of any nationality at present know how best to secure tickets!

For now, it can only, safely, be assumed that no one wants to be crawling out of bed at early o’clock on weekend mornings . . . mornings when the sumo association’s PR staff are likely tucked up in theirs.