COVID-19 infections continue to rumble along in Japan — albeit at a low rate.
Despite the persistence of the virus, and the very real risk of a second spike in the numbers, the sporting world remains on track toward a gradual return to normalcy.
At this stage it seems that, barring a major change in the status quo, there will indeed be a spectator-less sumo tournament in Tokyo in July.
If that two-week event passes without incident, then it’s conceivable that at least a limited number of spectators will be allowed back in for the Autumn meet in September.
Projecting out later than that is pointless, but whether it’s in November or in 2021, sumo will eventually be back in front of full houses at some stage.
Will things be the same as before though?
The coronavirus-enforced break has caused organizations around the globe to re-evaluate work practices, and as a result, changes are coming in many walks of life. Sport is no different and discussions have been ongoing in virtually all governing bodies regarding how to deal with large numbers of people who are in close contact in the future.
What will sumo look like following the pandemic? Some tweaks are inevitable but given the human tendency to acclimatize to danger, it’s doubtful that Japan’s national sport will undergo radical change.
Most aspects of sumo have worked pretty well for decades, if not centuries, so it is difficult to argue that the sport needs a radical overhaul.
There are some areas that could be improved, however.
Accessibility, or the lack thereof, is one problem that fans have continuously raised with me over the years.
Certain elements of sumo make it one of the most open sports going.
Fans can interact with wrestlers heading into and out of tournaments, and easily get autographs and photos with their favorite rikishi.
Regional tours take the sport all over the country with meet-and-greet sessions at each stop along the way.
Training sessions at many stables can be observed by members of the general public, and with wrestlers walking, biking or using public transport, chance encounters are possible in a way they aren’t with stars in most other sports.
The common factor in all the above though is fans being in the same physical location as the rikishi. If you live abroad or can’t make it to tournaments or regional tour events, then the opportunities to interact with sumo decrease to almost zero.
In and of itself that’s as hardly surprising. It’s only natural that if someone isn’t in the same geographical region as an event, they will have fewer chances to encounter sumo.
The problem arises however with secondary methods of interaction.
While the Japan Sumo Association has made great strides when it comes to its online and social media presence in recent years, the amount and style of the content available on the internet still leaves a lot of room for improvement.
First and foremost, the most valuable asset any sporting body has is footage of its games or bouts.
Sumo has excellent film stretching all the way back the earliest days of the medium, yet for the most part the sumo presence on platforms like YouTube has mostly been ceded to a motley collection of fan-made videos or foreign documentaries.
The drama and history of sumo is so rich that the sport could easily create its own version of the NFL Network and run programming 24 hours a day. Why there isn’t an online sumo channel packed with content like the excellent Legend of Sumo series is hard to understand.
Time and again I see threads on various blogs, sites and social media platforms with newer fans asking where they can watch sumo.
In most cases apart from NHK World’s Sumopedia series, the answers direct them to all kinds of places. I regularly see recommendations for channels that no longer exist, or videos that contain all kinds of misleading information.
Even when the advice is good, geo-blocking, poor quality video, a lack of subtitles and various other issues mean that it takes patience and time to sort through things and find the diamonds in the dirt. The effort required is a turn off for many people who have just discovered the sport and want an easy way to watch bouts. How many potential supporters are being lost to the sport is hard to say, but it’s an ongoing issue.
Foreign fans of sumo, especially those that don’t speak Japanese, have been the ones to suffer most up to now, but when you are talking about a subset of the fanbase of a niche sport (outside Japan) such things come with the territory.
The effort required to create content for people abroad (most of whom can’t contribute financially to the sport by buying tickets) has meant that traditionally there has been little impetus for change in that area.
If the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, however, or results in permanent changes to the number of people allowed to attend tournaments in the future, it could spark the powers that be into getting the ball rolling on creating and making available official content, to be packaged and sold, not only to foreign fans, but also to supporters in Japan who no longer have easy access to rikishi.
It remains to be seen whether or not that silver lining comes to pass, but even if things do get back to normal, the JSA would be wise to start taking advantage of its “back catalog” and making much more footage of great bouts and tournaments of the past available online.