A recent survey of 1,000 Japanese sports viewers who subscribe to JSky Sports showed that 25-30 percent enjoyed watching or wanted to watch baseball, sumo and soccer, 19 percent favored domestic rugby, 13 percent enjoyed cycling and 12 percent preferred international rugby, NBA and NHL.
It seems that while you cannot please all of the people all of the time (and the survey was for Japanese only rather than ex-pats), a great many are satisfied by the ever-expanding coverage of both domestic and international sport on the company’s three channels and this is reflected in the growing number of subscribers.
Two years ago the company brought in New Zealander John Knowles as executive vice president “to develop the value of the company in a cooperative role.”
A former head of sports at TVNZ in 1987, Knowles was seconded by Liberty Media (one of JSky Sports’ shareholders) “to share my experiences about TV administration and my knowledge of sports from abroad.”
With 3.5 million subscribers (2.8 million via cable and 700,000 via satellite — 10 percent of whom are ex-pats) the company’s aim is to be “the most outstanding sports broadcaster in Japan,” though as Knowles admits, there needs to be a shift away from the traditional Japanese way of presenting sports.
“I believe it is important to cover the whole game — from beginning to end — and try to present the whole picture,” he said.
Knowles also believes that the company needs to offer more in the way of onscreen performance, graphics, cameras, commentary and analysis.
“We should let the viewers step back and look at all aspects of the game, question why things happened or ask what will happen next.”
One group of supporters that would no doubt be delighted by this would be the followers of Japanese baseball.
“Baseball fans sign up to us because we cover the whole game,” said Knowles.
“The fact that we are on 24 hours a day on three channels gives us far more flexibility.”
The exodus of players to the major leagues doesn’t seem to have harmed the satellite broadcaster either.
“We have been pleasantly surprised — our figures are slightly better than last year — that the competition from the U.S. has not been that great. The time difference works in our favor in that there is no head-to-head competition with the major leagues and besides people still want to see how their team is doing.”
Japanese baseball fans serve another purpose to JSky Sports as they often act as a measuring stick for the new sports that are introduced.
“Unlike many of the other sports we cover, Japanese baseball is very seasonal and many fans cancel their subscriptions during the offseason,” Knowles said. “One thing we need to work on is to look at ways we can keep them on for the whole year.”
Consequently the company is constantly on the lookout for new sports that “add to our value and give our subscribers a reason to stay with us.”
“We have recently set up a P.R. and research department and hold regular audience surveys, and all complaints are put in a daily log that all staff members can see.”
Sports such as cycling, darts and snooker were originally introduced as “filler sports” but have since developed cult status — as have two “sports” that definitely fall into the “love them or hate them” category.
“The success of the World Wrestling Entertainment has surprised us, but it has developed a big fan base, many of whom follow the ongoing story lines rather than the actual wrestling,” Knowles said at the company headquarters in Odaiba.
Ballroom dancing is another sport that gets considerable airtime, primarily to attract female viewers to the company.
“This was a deliberate ploy to help husbands justify to their partners getting JSky Sports — plus it was an Olympic sport in Sydney in 2000.”
While it may be a surprise that a sports broadcaster airs professional wrestling and dancing it is no surprise that soccer takes up much of the airtime.
With the “world’s game” being played year-round on the various continents there is an endless source of games to keep fans happy both from the J. League and overseas.
“We are the only company in Japan with rights to cover the Spanish League, which is probably more popular than the Premier League,” Knowles said.
“This year we will cover 330 J. League games (though not all of them live.) We will also show 367 domestic baseball games and 140 domestic rugby games. No where in the world can you see that many games on one series of channels.”
It would seem the only obstacle to the continuing success of the company is the growing commercialization of the various sports that are covered.
“Sports bodies rely on television rights and fans pay for it one way or another, be it via commercials, a TV license or direct subscriptions. Sports are like movies and the stars will keep getting more and more money, and that needs to come from somewhere,” Knowles explained.
The sports covered therefore depends on how much the broadcaster can afford, and the more successful a sport the more competition there is to cover it.
“The rights for the Premier League went up by a factor of 30 or 40. We needed to recoup that money which is why we have put some of the games on pay-per-view. We can’t compete with the likes of Fuji TV and their enormous resources or the very large public funding of NHK. We have to maintain a balance between making money, keeping our subscribers happy and upholding the views of the company/sport holding the rights.”
One common complaint of satellite companies is that they prevent terrestrial companies from showing the masses a sport of national importance.
Knowles, however, has a different view.
“If an important game is shown terrestrial, then hopefully fans will come to Sky to watch all the other games that we show. Sports fans want more than one game, which terrestrial cannot offer. People do not subscribe for just one game, they want more and we can give it to them.”
If Knowles has his way, viewers in Japan will soon be seeing even more, particularly regarding the use of action replays.
“It seems to be the Japanese way not to show replays of controversial moments. But why have TV if you can’t have replays. Fans feel deprived if they can’t see such moments again.”
The native of Christchurch is also a big fan of TV replays in assisting referees.
“What is in the best interest of the game? The need to get it right or leave judgments unquestioned. If viewers can see something is wrong so should the guy in the paddock,” though he does admit that some sports are more suited to TV-assisted decisions than others.
Knowles would also love to update sumo “within the bounds of good taste.”
“I am aware that sumo is an international sport but its audience in Japan is aging and dwindling. The schedule is also not at all TV friendly. It could have far more appeal, though obviously traditions must be observed. Imagine during regional bashos a camera in the white line and music as the wrestlers enter the ring. It would be a little bit of showbiz and appeal to many more people.”
The resurgence of cricket following Kerry Packer’s World Series more than backs up that line of thought.
Aware that TV can help make a sport popular but not force a sport on people, JSky Sports recently signed a five-year deal to promote rugby in Japan.
“Sports come and go like fashion. The key is to predict it. This is our challenge for Japanese rugby. All sports need stars just like movies. The J. League used stars to raise the level of the J. League and the pinnacle was the World Cup. The Japan Rugby Football Union and Sky want to follow suit with the launch of the new professional league — the Top League.”
As a sports fan, Knowles says the greatest sporting experience he has had was at the Barcelona Olympics watching the U.S. men’s 4×100 team set a new world record. “Pure magic, A great sporting moment.” sk
He also said that he would love to watch a rugby game at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. “Just listening to the fans singing, even on TV makes your hair stand on end.”
With any luck those feelings will be shared by a growing number of sports fans in Japan as Knowles and JSky Sports look at more and more inventive ways to cover the wide range of sports that are played around the world.
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