Sumo’s bi-monthly nature may have exempted it from the financial pressures that are hitting other sports hard, but the ongoing pandemic is still having an impact on the sport.
A spectator-less tournament in March was, of course, the most notable enforced change, but there have been others.
One came this week with the release of the banzuke (rankings) for the Summer Grand Sumo Tournament.
While the date of release remained the same, there were differences in how the physical ranking sheets were dealt with.
Normally, younger and lower-ranked wrestlers from each stable go to the Kokugikan arena at 6 a.m. on the day of release and collect large stacks of the 58-by-44-cm sheets, which they then take back to their stable, fold and mail out to supporters and friends.
This time, the Japan Sumo Association had the banzuke sheets delivered to the individual stables.
Usually the general public can also purchase banzuke sheets (for ¥55 each) at the Kokugikan while stocks last — which is usually no more than a couple of days. For the current tournament, however, that was changed to an online-only ordering system, using a third-party vendor.
Copies of the banzuke arrived at 9 a.m. on the morning of release, both for the stables and the general public. The online system only shipped to domestic addresses. For those wondering, the start date of the tournament on the sheet is the rescheduled one of May 24, rather than the original May 10.
Whether a tournament will actually take place or not in May is still up in the air and looking increasingly unlikely. The JSA has only said that it intends to continue as scheduled but that the situation could change.
Reading between the lines, another closed-door tournament seemed to be in the cards, but with Takadagawa stablemaster and several wrestlers contracting the coronavirus, even that would appear to be a long shot right now.
Regardless of whether the summer meet gets pushed back again or is canceled altogether, the banzuke that was just released will stand and be used the next time a tournament takes place. As the rankings are based solely on results in the ring, another banzuke cannot be created until there is some action to evaluate.
If the tournament does go ahead as planned in May, fans tuning into NHK’s English language broadcasts will notice one significant change.
Normally seven of the 15 days see a color commentator join the regular play-by-play person in the booth, often with an interpreter and production assistant also present. For the upcoming meet, though, the national broadcaster has decided to limit the number of people present, meaning that in May it will just be a single commentator each day.
As one of the regular color commentators, that means I won’t be on-air in May, but despite missing out, it’s a decision I wholeheartedly agree with. Priority must be given to keeping people safe.
Apart from the impact on tournaments themselves, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in other changes to sumo’s normal schedule.
The Yokozuna Deliberation Council open practice session that normally takes place before each meet has been canceled. It is one of the few opportunities for all the top-rankers to be seen in action together prior to a meet, and while results normally count for little, the performances are often a good indicator of health and physical condition.
The new recruit examinations that were due to take place on April 28 have also been affected and are now tentatively scheduled for May 12.
Practice sessions in stables are still going ahead, but the JSA is urging stablemasters to exercise caution and limit contact to a level that they judge appropriate. Training still remains closed to visitors and most media interactions are taking place remotely.
If the May tournament does proceed as planned, the condition and preparedness of the wrestlers taking part is likely to be well short of ideal.
Any meet in the next month or so is virtually certain to be held without spectators as well. One third party involved in ticket sales reported that 90 percent of its customers have canceled orders for May, and that it is processing no new ticket requests.
While JSA finances would take a significant hit from a second successive tournament without fans, that and all of the other coronavirus-enforced changes still won’t hit the sport nearly as hard as they have others.
Sumo holds just six tournaments a year, and while gate receipts are important, television income is equally so. Being able to hold the March meet means that even as many J. League clubs are already reporting serious financial difficulties, and other sports teams and leagues are facing a wave of bankruptcies and uncertain futures, sumo has been mostly insulated from a financial standpoint to date.
Ironically, the low level of merchandising, and availability of goods (something that’d I’ve called a missed opportunity for years) is a factor in sumo’s favor in the ongoing climate.
While soccer teams sit on mountains of unsold jerseys and other items that they would normally ship at games and special events, the fact that so little of the JSA’s money comes from merchandise, means it isn’t taking the same kind of hit to a regular income stream.
Of course, such buffers have a limited span and if the JSA is forced to cancel 2020’s remaining tournaments, the situation will look very different. But for now, while sumo is being affected by COVID-19, its unique system is insulating it from the worst effects of the pandemic.
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