In an interesting twist, rigid traditions and practices that have drawn increasing criticism over the past few years seem to have put sumo in a better position to weather the COVID-19 storm than most other sports.
The new coronavirus is wreaking havoc on the sporting world across the globe. One of its first victims was USA Rugby, which declared bankruptcy in March. Already struggling financially, the impact of canceled games was the final straw for rugby’s governing body in the United States, but even sports that had previously been swimming in money are feeling the pinch.
That was seen this week with Major League Baseball’s widely derided plan to play games in Arizona in May. Attempting to justify such a reckless decision with platitudes about fans deserving to see baseball and guff about psychologists supporting the idea fooled few. Clearly that sport’s main concern is lost revenue from ticket sales and television rights.
The speed at which organizations like the English Premier League and its associated sides have found themselves in financial difficulty is head-spinning. In a sport where players are bought and sold for sums well over ¥10 billion, the fact that teams placed nonplaying staff on temporary leave and looked for government handouts to pay their salaries so soon after the crisis started resulted in an immediate backlash, especially when players earning huge sums resisted any attempts to cut their pay.
What has become very clear is that if the COVID-19 pandemic continues into the summer and beyond, the global sporting landscape will look very different in the years to come. With clubs and leagues struggling after just a couple of weeks of inactivity, it’s almost certain that many will collapse without a swift return to action.
In the eye of this hurricane is sumo.
The fact that 90 percent of rikishi receive no salary, and that the sport’s main income-generating events only take place every two months, means that so far the coronavirus has had little impact aside from the March tournament being held without spectators.
The television revenue from that meet also softened the blow, and even if the May and July tournaments are canceled, it’s likely that the long-term financial impact on sumo would still be minimal.
The JSA announced that it was pushing back the planned starting dates of the summer and Nagoya tournaments by two weeks, but given how things have developed since then, the chances of any meet going ahead, even another without spectators, seem slim.
Even if there are no tournaments till September or later, the physical condition of the wrestlers shouldn’t be as significantly affected as other sports where both competition and training have been suspended — as long as practice continues as normal.
The unique structure of the sport, which has the vast majority of stablemates living together under one roof with most not allowed to go outside, effectively puts rikishi in de facto lockdown. Because wrestlers share the same eating, sleeping and living spaces, continuing with training would likely pose no additional risk. Rikishi can maintain a more-or-less normal routine throughout the ongoing pandemic and not show a noticeable decrease in performance when tournaments resume.
However, Friday’s announcement of a COVID-19 infection at one stable could lead to a wide shutdown on training if other rikishi or sumo officials begin to show symptoms.
With a state of emergency declared, holding the May tournament doesn’t seem likely right now, but if the curve is flattened and Tokyo doesn’t see a continuing rise in cases, it wouldn’t be a huge shock if the meet goes ahead. A lot will hinge on whether rikishi are infected and how widespread the infection is.
For the record I am against the idea — just as I was against the holding of the March meet. The risks, especially when they involve potential loss of life, far outweigh any potential gain. But realistically a May tournament can’t be ruled out just yet.
One aspect unique to sumo has taken a hit because of the ongoing pandemic. Training sessions being open to the public isn’t something that is seen in many other sports, apart from NFL camps and occasional fan service-type events. In sumo, though, it’s possible to visit stables and watch the stars of the sport in action up close year-round.
Watching training is a very different experience from attending a tournament, and one most sumo fans value highly. Understanding that supporters currently aren’t able to watch training sessions, the JSA and certain stables have started livestreaming early morning practices. Now fans around the world have an opportunity to get a greater understanding of what a rikishi’s lifestyle is like and what they go through each morning.
Such streams, along with the fact that in March viewers were able to hear every single sound during the Osaka tournament, right down to the breathing of the wrestlers and the sound of their feet on the sand, mean that ironically the COVID-19 pandemic has actually given sumo fans abroad more access to the sport than they previously had.
In a rapidly changing situation, sumo seems better set to weather the storm than most sports — even if things take a turn for the worse — but obviously the No. 1 concern is that everyone involved remains healthy.
I wish the same for all our readers. Stay safe out there.
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