Whatever hopes fans had for a peaceful end to the year were dashed when Japan Sumo Association officials instructed Takagenji to take part in his regularly scheduled bout on Dec. 11 despite the wrestler being diagnosed with influenza earlier in the day.
Ten years after an influenza A outbreak killed 40 people in Japan, the decision was yet another stunning lack of judgment by JSA executives.
The victims in the 2009 pandemic were mostly aged 60 and over — exactly the same demographic that occupies many of the seats closest to the ring at sumo events.
Even if Takagenji wasn’t part of a meet and greet session, having him out among the public in an enclosed gym was completely reckless and literally put the lives of paying customers at risk.
Shibatayama stablemaster, head of the JSA Public Relations Department apologized, saying “it was a mistake to have him do sumo. In the future, as a countermeasure, if such a case arises the person will be isolated immediately.”
Apart from the JSA once again being reactive rather than proactive, it beggars belief that in a country where young children are not allowed attend school with even a slight fever — and then require a doctor’s note giving them the all clear before they can return, sumo authorities didn’t have such system already in place.
Shibatayama, of course, was yokozuna Onokuni, and while there is nothing intrinsically wrong with having the head of PR being a former wrestler if he is up the task, the fact Shibatayama holds that position is symbolic of the wider issue — namely that virtually all of the day-to-day running of one of the nation’s largest sporting organizations is in the hands of people who quit school at 15 and have no real-world experience.
If professional sumo is ever to get away from a plate spinning style of management, it needs to greatly expand the amount of knowledge and perspicacity contained among its upper echelons.
Just as the role of a football or soccer coach nowadays is confined to what happens on the field, and general managers or sporting directors oversee what happens off it, so too should the JSA hire people experienced in the worlds of PR, compliance, player welfare, planning etc. and empower them to make better long-term strategic decisions.
Stablemasters and sumo elders would then be free to concentrate on training wrestlers and managing their own rikishi.
Obviously there would be huge resistance to any such move (few want to give up such total control) but when thinking about the growth of sumo and the sport as a whole, bringing in (for example) people from among the Rugby World Cup organizers, or other successful sports business-related companies could allow sumo to become so much more than it already is.
The JSA, despite what many may think, isn’t resistant to change. The organization is, for example, quite good at utilizing social media and displays a fun side on its TikTok and Instagram accounts.
Special tickets are available for various events and the JSA has always been ahead of the game when it comes to fan-athlete interaction.
The potential is there for so much more though.
One obvious area for improvement is live streaming of entire tournaments, either through a dedicated site or on YouTube.
With demand for seats far outstripping supply these days and the cost of coming to Japan to watch sumo live prohibitive, creating and monetizing live video of your content could be a huge earner for the JSA.
Sumo might not have quite the audience needed for a 24-hour dedicated TV channel like NFL Network, but the sport is extremely user friendly and easily broken down into bite sized clips, making it perfect for the modern online world.
Some apps already exist but, especially on the English language side, there is still huge room for growth.
Events in the ring over the past year also make this the perfect time for such an expansion.
Right now, sumo is more competitive than it has been in decades. After seeing multiple legendary wrestlers, each more dominant than the last, sweep up title after title and make most tournaments forgone conclusions, we are now experiencing a period where it seems almost anyone in the top division is a credible threat to lift the Emperor’s Cup.
New fans are being spoiled for choice when it comes to picking a favorite rikishi. Five different men won the championship in 2019 and several up and comers are pushing for promotion to the highest ranks.
Small rikishi like Enho provide thrills day in and day out, making even bouts that have no impact on the destination of the title exciting.
Sumo’s popularity isn’t guaranteed, however. The sport has always ebbed and flowed when it comes to ticket sales and viewing figures, and it’s only a few short years since constant scandals and uncompetitive tournaments meant you could walk up to the entrance most mornings and pick whatever seat you wanted.
The biggest difference now, however, is that social media is in full flow and the international audience for sumo continues to grow. Japan’s national sport has a uniqueness that separates it from others that are currently doing better in terms of audience numbers, such as soccer and baseball. Unlike with those sports, however, top class professional sumo cannot be found abroad.
Demographics alone means the JSA, whether or not it hires the people suggested above, must pay attention to and take advantage of its foreign audience.
Not endangering the lives of your domestic audience is also a priority of course.
The potential is there for great things both at home and abroad. The question is will the JSA get the right people in to take advantage of it?