Over the past six months, one consequence of the ongoing global pandemic for those involved in live sports has been the opening up of significant blocks of time.
Days that would normally be spent traveling to, and working in, various stadiums and arenas around the country were suddenly now free.
Many sportswriters and commentators have taken advantage of the opportunity and turned their attention to writing books, setting up podcasts, or returning to other back-burner projects for which there had never seemed to be enough time.
It’s also given journalists who focus mainly on one sport, a chance to take a look at others and see how they compare to their own.
Sumo, being more of a lifestyle than a sport, as well as something that has been around for millennia rather than decades or centuries, doesn’t have many contemporaries. That doesn’t mean, however, there aren’t areas in which it could learn and improve by following the example of other sports. Similarly, there are many aspects unique to sumo, that, if applied to various games around the world, would only have a positive impact.
This is something that has already happened with instant replay.
The system whereby officials can look at slow motion video feeds of an incident from various angles and thereby confirm or overturn a prior ruling isn’t unique to sumo, but despite it being more closely connected with football or rugby in the minds of the general public, instant replay was in common use in Japan’s national sport decades before it became standard practice abroad. Instant replay was introduced in 1969, after a public outcry when ringside judges reversed a referee’s decision and incorrectly awarded rank-and-filer Toda a win over legendary yokozuna Taiho (who had come into the bout on a string of 45 straight wins and was making a run at Futabayama’s record 69 consecutive victories).
One area of sumo that many sports would do well to copy is its adherence to tradition and continuity when it comes to costume and ceremony.
Look at century old footage of sumo and compare it to the modern-day version and you’ll find precious few changes. A referee, ringside judge or rikishi from 2020 could be dropped into a bout in 1920 (or even 1820) and barely be noticeable.
That stands in sharp contrast to other traditional national sports like baseball or soccer, where trying to keep up with the array of new uniforms (home, away, third, special occasion, etc.) can be head spinning. Even in sports that limit the number of changes, sponsor logos seem to take up an increasing amount of space on uniforms year by year. Some fans love the variety but others chafe against the diluting of tradition and the pressure to continuously buy the latest (expensive) jersey.
Of course, sports in the modern era is big business and selling a constant stream of expensive new merchandise is vital for teams hoping to remain competitive in player acquisition.
That’s part of the rapidly changing nature of global sport but also means that several sumo practices which might have been adopted by other games just 10 or 20 years ago would be nonstarters nowadays.
Strict apprenticeships with few personal freedoms. The ability to limit or shut down media access to younger athletes. Pulling players from competition as punishment. All were still common in some western sports as late as the 1990s but are far rarer now in an era when most actions and procedures are standardized, and players and their agents wield enormous power.
In many, if not most cases those changes have been for the better, and athletes have more rights and protections than in the past so overall those transformations have been positive.
Tradition though is a major part of sumo’s appeal, and wholesale change would be a turnoff for its fan base both domestic and international. Those who follow sumo often do so precisely because it has remained virtually unchanged for centuries.
There are ways to modernize and copy what is happening in sports worldwide, however, without detracting from what it is that makes sumo special.
First and foremost, despite the strides being made, sumo is still well behind the times when it comes to getting its main product in front of fan’s faces.
Livestreaming that can be accessed anywhere in the world should be the No. 1 priority for sumo authorities. Subscription-based content that is easily accessible and can be followed live has created explosive audience growth for organizations like the NFL.
The creation of the NFL Network and NFL Game Pass has brought that sport to a whole new level worldwide and created marketing and merchandising opportunities in several new countries.
Given the amount of historical sumo footage available as well as the ease with which new fans can pick up an understanding of the sport, the Japan Sumo Association could easily have a far larger and more constant presence online.
Capitalizing on the far larger audience that would inevitably follow such a move, partnering with vendors abroad to ensure sumo’s unique merchandise is easily and cheaply available to foreign fans would be the next logical move.
Further down the line a more structured entry system into the sport for young athletes in other countries could be set up.
Sumo doesn’t need to copy other sports, but it can learn from them and adapt their systems to ensure its core product reaches more people.