Sumo | INSIDE SUMO

Slicker production needed for amateur sumo

by John Gunning

Typhoon Hagibis raged across Japan last weekend leaving in its wake a trail of devastation both deep and wide-ranging.

Compared to the loss of life, and destruction of homes that occurred on Saturday, the cancellation or postponement of sporting events feels barely worth mentioning.

A herculean effort ensured Japan’s game against Scotland in the Rugby World Cup went ahead however, and the reaction to the subsequent host nation victory and first-ever qualification for the knockout stages has shown that those efforts were absolutely worth it.

Since the win over Ireland earlier in the tournament, the Brave Blossoms have captured the public imagination like never before and driven rugby to an all-time high in terms of popularity in Japan.

Fifty million people — nearly half the population of the country — watched the final moments of that match against Scotland. That’s an incredible achievement for a sport that normally doesn’t even rank in the top ten in Japan in terms of viewing or participation numbers.

Sumo, of course, along with baseball and soccer are the undisputed big three when it comes to sports in this country.

The first of those is thriving, but while the professional version of Japan’s national sport sells out tournaments, and its star rikishi are constantly on TV and in magazines, the amateur side appears unable to break out of a never-ending struggle for any kind of attention.

How many people know that the World Sumo Championships was also forced to change its schedule because of last weekend’s typhoon? There was virtually no mention in domestic media of the fact that 29 countries and territories sent national and representative teams to Osaka for the biggest event in the sport’s calendar.

Amateur sumo may lack the glamour and pageantry of ōzumō (professional sumo), but, as detailed in this column on many occasions, it’s the lifeblood of the professional version.

Unlike its more famous counterpart, amateur sumo is also open to all. Men and women, boys and girls participated in last Sunday’s competition with both the junior and senior tournaments having to be run in a single day.

That necessitated using two practice rings as well as the main arena, with nonstop bouts from early morning until after 8 p.m.

None of the athletes who traveled to Japan received any compensation for their efforts, with virtually all of them paying travel and other costs out of pocket. They were hit doubly hard this year, as the championships were originally supposed to be held in Hawaii and the lateness of the switch meant several lost nonrefundable deposits for flights and accommodation there.

Ukraine topped the medal table for the first time ever.

The eastern European country has been in the shadow of Japan, Mongolia and Russia for more than a decade, but four golds this month and ten medals in total allowed Ukraine to pip its next-door neighbor for first place overall.

The host nation’s 11 medals was the biggest overall haul but with just one of those being gold it was a crushing weekend for the Japan team.

While the World Championships remains the highest level for the vast majority of athletes from 28 of the teams in Osaka, several of the Japanese men will likely go on to join professional sumo and make a living from the sport — something that just isn’t an option for wrestlers from other countries.

Amateur sumo’s main dilemma is that while its level continues to rise each year and participation is rising at all levels, overall awareness of the sport remains stagnant.

Apart from the inevitable “wow, look at this — a female sumo wrestler” pieces in regional newspapers that crop up from time to time, amateur sumo gets little to no press.

Most mass media coverage focuses on a particular athlete. Mainstream media simply does not approach the World Championships from a purely sporting perspective.

When have you ever seen a sports show discussing the main contenders in each weight class or read an article detailing the relative strengths or weaknesses of individual wrestlers compared to their opponents?

The galling point for those involved is that they know sumo is both accessible and exciting. There is no sport with simpler rules or shorter and more exciting action.

It takes mere seconds to understand the aim of the game (force your opponent down or out) and less than a handful of bouts for people to be hooked.

Why, then, can’t amateur sumo capture the public imagination in the way that professional sumo does or even sports with ridiculously complex and ever changing rules like rugby?

Having spent a lot of time covering American football, another sport in Japan played at a high level with low popularity, and watched various efforts to promote the sport struggle to gain traction, it’s clear that there really is just one way to make something popular — put it on TV.

While the Internet has become the main source of news and entertainment for younger age groups, television still has massive power of influence. That’s doubly true for sports, where no amount of reports, photos or interviews can replace live footage.

Many sporting bodies waste money and effort in their attempts to create a better stadium experience before an audience exists.

Like other minor sports in Japan, amateur sumo needs its product to be on screens in front of large numbers of people if it wants to grow.

The Catch-22 is that broadcasters only want to show sports that are already popular.

If a sport lacks connections or influence to get on TV, then it should focus all its efforts on high-quality livestreams with professional graphics and commentary.

Anyone tuning in last weekend saw a single static camera that didn’t even cover the edges of the ring, with muddy sound and no commentary or graphics telling viewers who was fighting or even which division they were contesting.

Efforts like that do more harm than good, especially in an era when individuals on YouTube can churn out slick, polished videos with crystal-clear sound and catchy graphics and titles.

In 2019 there is only one thing minor sports like amateur sumo need to realize.

If you show it, they will come.

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