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NSK gets a glimpse of a (potentially) bright future

by Mark Buckton

Special To The Japan Times Online

In May the English soccer team Manchester United won their 19th English league championship to date — and the world watched on TV, the Internet and via a wealth of other media sources.

A little over a week later, half way around the globe Yokozuna Hakuho went 13-2 between May 8 and the 22nd to secure his own 19th title in Japan’s national sport — and no one noticed. Or so the folks at NHK would have us believe.

As part of the after-effects of the match-rigging scandal so well documented in recent months, the Sumo Association (NSK) was informed that the national broadcaster (NHK) would not be broadcasting the most recent basho live even if they did let highlight bouts appear on their evening news shows.

But in making such a decision, a typical self-appreciating gesture to seem at one with perceived public opinion condemning yaocho and all those admitting having thrown bouts, NHK have now relegated themselves in the eyes of most fans to “also-rans” in the quest to broadcast the sport.

Hakuho’s #19 will count in official records. The win/loss records of all those who participated will be recorded on each man’s individual score cards.* Special prizes, although not actually awarded on the final day of action, will be counted come the end of the careers of all those weathering the current sumo storm, and regardless of the name of the event being changed from Natsu Basho to the May Technical Examination Tournament, the only real losers in the long-term will be shown to be NHK.

Fans around the world were this time treated to a full day of sumo. From the earliest bouts in the morning right up until the final bout of the day featuring the top-ranked rikishi. Everything happening on the dohyo was out there on the Internet for fans and casual viewers to enjoy. Such expansive coverage is something NHK has never managed to achieve, despite the power they wield over sumo. Add to this the fact that the NHK BS shows have now even cut the old viewing options from around 1 p.m. each day in Japan, and the chance to see anything but the upper divisions is anything but rosy.

Publicity of far greater numbers than has ever been realized before has opened the door to new demographics. Leading the charge was the online broadcaster Nico Nico, which required pre-registration but who then received incredible online praise on sumo fan forums for their sterling efforts at improved quality and sound in addition to extended coverage online. Even the NSK itself upped its own game with its own “captioned” in-house coverage which, until now, was regularly the recipient of criticism for the poor quality of its (stream) feed and limited opportunities to see any bouts below the second division.

As such every man in the sport will now realize that the Nihon Sumo Kyokai should at the very least consider the ball and chain-like agreement it has with NHK. They should contemplate bringing in a few decent promoters and then see the world open up as their proverbial oyster.

Scandals happen in many sports around the world. The difference is that the rest of the world moves on while the Japanese never seem to forgive or forget. The bout-fixing scandal happened, the participants are human, bad apples and all that, but life moves on. Or at least it should.

In the sumo world the apologies have been made, and those admitting to throwing matches booted out. The courts can handle those claiming unfair dismissal, but the sport needs to look to the future and bring in outside promoters who can take sumo to as many screens as possible — via dedicated websites, online streams, social media, etc. The year is 2011, and as old and archaic as some of the traditions in sumo are, the need to look the modern world square in the face is there.

NSK should consider the Manchester United of just 20 years ago. Popular, yes, but they were wallowing in mid-table for many years in the English (old) First Division. A few moments of glory came their way thanks to domestic cup wins but nothing major — and then they got rid of an unpopular owner at the end of the 1980s. Coupled to a switch in the day-to-day team management a couple of years earlier, going public and a massive PR campaign, this led to more trophies over the next decade and a half than most can even remember. Today they are arguably the biggest soccer team on the planet (even if they did lose in the May 29th Champions League Final). The team now claims millions of fans worldwide, and there is never an empty seat in their home ground of 76,000 or so. This is the kind of fame that could be realized once again in sumo, if the men in charge of the NSK and the 11,000 seater Ryogoku Kokugikan start thinking tomorrow, five years down the line, 10 years . . . if, but only if!

Here’s praying they do so without NHK by their side!

* Each rikishi, from the lowest ranked to the yokozuna has a paper, hand maintained record showing wins and losses, as well as opponents on any given day from the first bouts in their career to their final appearance on the dohyo.