Sumo’s popularity abroad has increased massively over the past few years.
A huge section of the fan base is now composed of people who have come to the sport relatively recently.
That larger audience has been a boon for those of us working in sports media, driving up demand for expanded coverage and creating opportunities to do deeper and more interesting work.
It has also brought additional challenges, as many of the newer fans are from the United States — a country with a very different style of sports coverage.
In an attempt to learn more about what supporters want, and where our industry might be heading over the next five to 10 years, I asked newer fans to complete an online survey this week.
Hundreds did, and the results made two things crystal clear.
First, newer fans are extremely passionate about sumo.
Second, they want more content — a lot more.
Regardless of whether it was phrased as a complaint or as praise, fans overwhelmingly wanted increased coverage of their new favorite sport.
“I wish there was more commentary honestly and maybe some more behind-the-scenes interviews and mini-documentaries,” said John Fielder, a historian from the United States.
“It would also be great if the highlights were able to show more matches, or maybe be longer. The NHK World Grand Sumo live broadcast is great and I’m thankful it’s available on-demand, but it only covers the last hour or so (of bouts) . . . it would be nice to see fuller coverage.”
Fielder’s comments were echoed by dozens of other fans, with many bemoaning the lack of fully accessible live coverage or timely and comprehensive extended highlights.
Recent converts to any sport always tend to be fervent, but sumo is particularly addictive, needing only a couple hits to get people hooked for life.
Laurel Kibble from Australia said she liked that English language coverage “often tackles challenging topics more bluntly than Japanese sources do at times,” but she disliked “The lack of it! There is significantly more information and detail available in Japanese, which means that fans who don’t speak Japanese are often forming inaccurate opinions.”
Kibble’s complaint highlights an important issue.
There simply aren’t enough people with sumo knowledge and experience covering it in English.
I’m literally the only person working in English-language sumo media who has both competed as an amateur and been involved in the professional side of the sport.
As nice as a monopoly is for both the ego and bank balance, I’m acutely aware that it is not good for the growth of the sport.
Sumo coverage needs other voices. Distinctive voices.
With the passing of Doreen Simmons and the return to Australia of Katrina Watts, the sport also has no women in prominent media roles. That’s simply unacceptable in the modern world.
Regardless of gender or background, fresh blood is needed. In my forties, I’m the youngest color commentator on the live broadcasts by decades!
When someone born in the early 1970’s is considered the mischievous young kid on the block, something is wrong.
Fans coming to sumo from sports like football and basketball, which have dedicated channels and 24/7 coverage fronted by a whole host of salty ex-players and sharp-tonged talking heads, often find the tone of sumo coverage too reverential or unwilling to tackle the biting issues.
Some like August Baker in Kansas want “More in-depth coverage like what can be found in American sports, about specific strategies rikishi use,” aired in extended programs between basho.
Others would rather English-language sumo coverage tone down and cut back on commentary rather than imitating western-style sports media. Those fans tend to be people attracted more to the cultural aspects of Japan’s national sport.
In a sense it’s a mirror image of another issue that divided fans down the middle — the amount of jargon used in articles and on air. Roughly half of those surveyed wanted more English explanations and less Japanese used, while the remainder wanted commentators to stop repeatedly explaining basic terms and telling them stuff they already knew.
That’s a problem that has long existed for those of us covering a sport whose audience has a large hardcore following and a significant number of new fans. It’s a balancing act that’s hard to get right.
Regardless of people’s opinions on those topics, one uniting factor was a real thirst for more background information on the rikishi themselves.
The low number of people actually covering sumo in English through Japanese outlets has led to numerous blogs, YouTube channels and Twitter accounts attempting to fill the gap. The latter two in particular were cited by almost all fans as their main sources of information.
The problem is that while some of those alternative news sources do great work, virtually all of them are run by people who don’t live in Japan, speak Japanese or have any actual connection with the sumo world.
That can and has led to stories that are mistranslated, misinterpreted or just plain false being picked up and spread among the wider fanbase.
While not a problem that’s unique to sumo by any means, the lack of English-language sumo writers and commentators in major media outlets grants poor-quality information a prominence it wouldn’t otherwise achieve.
Having been a fan in a time when the only source of sumo news was a bimonthly magazine and later an email list, many older fans think newcomers are spoiled for choice these days.
The problem is that resources like The Sumo Forum — without a doubt the best repository of English-language sumo information that exists — are unwieldy and don’t fit well with fans who, because of time zone differences, want to engage with others while watching sumo live in the early hours of the morning, or else get their information in easily digestible well-packaged highlight videos.
They key takeaway from the survey was that although there are many issues surrounding English-language coverage of sumo, fans are generally happy with the quality but not the quantity of it, especially from sources in Japan that can cover the sport directly.
It’s a conclusion I wholeheartedly agree with. I would like to see more content produced by a greater variety of people. I’ve pretty much maxed out all the time I have available for sumo coverage so, much like in sumo itself, the question remains: When will the next generation arrive and who will they be?