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An Instagram post containing footage from the 2021 All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Cork went viral on Instagram this month.

The five-second clip of the 3,000-year-old game garnered 11 million views in the space of three weeks and had hundreds — if not thousands — of people asking what this insanely fast and dangerous-looking sport was, and where they could watch more of it.

Being Irish means that I was the recipient of numerous enquiries from those who had seen the post but were unfamiliar with hurling.

As with any other sport, there were plenty of highlight clips available online that I could direct the curious toward. For those wanting to dig deeper, I was able to recommend GAAGO, an IPTV service jointly provided by the sport’s governing body and Irish national television that provides live and on-demand games globally.

The ease of being able to proffer options that would satisfy those who were merely curious — as well as those with genuine interest — was striking was striking after years of dealing with foreign fans’ frustration over the lack of something similar in Japan’s national sport.

“How can I watch?” is probably the most-asked question online when it comes to sumo

The answer sadly in most cases is “You can’t — at least not legally.”

International viewers hoping to watch grand tournaments must often resort to finding illegal streams. | REUTERS
International viewers hoping to watch grand tournaments must often resort to finding illegal streams. | REUTERS

It’s genuinely shocking that in this day and age there isn’t a single official live streaming option available for international sumo fans.

Live action is king when it comes to content, and is something which is vital for any sporting body hoping to remain relevant in a saturated market.

NFL highlights, shown in Europe a week or two after games had been played, were acceptable in the 1980s when fans stood little chance of encountering spoilers in mainstream media and weren’t interacting in real time with other gridiron lovers around the globe.

Times change, though, and services such as NFL Game Pass actually provide more and better content to fans outside the United States than what is available to those who live there.

Although the NFL — like the Japan Sumo Association — is a single-country professional sporting body, the former’s reach and wealth are on a different scale entirely, allowing it to provide round-the-clock high-quality original content.

Yet the JSA can’t even use finances as an excuse, as even amateur or semi-professional sporting bodies such as Japan’s X League manage to make live streaming packages accessible to foreign football fans.

If similar country-specific sporting bodies like the aforementioned GAA as well as Australian rules football’s AFL can provide high-level live and on-demand coverage of games for smaller international audiences, there is no reason that sumo cannot do the same. The entire island of Ireland has a population of just 5 million people, roughly 12.5% of those living in the greater Tokyo area alone.

The JSA, to its credit, has made improvements in the amount and variety of content available over the past few years, but it still lags behind what others are doing. While the official Grand Sumo app allows paid subscribers to watch highlights soon after a bout finishes, there is no way to avoid seeing the results of fights before watching them and the content can’t be viewed on televisions.

Similarly, while the JSA has also expanded its YouTube channel, its piecemeal approach — with no English titles — and only a handful of bout highlights available each day — leaves you wishing the organization would just go the whole hog and give fans what they really want.

While the Japan Sumo Association has previously sponsored overseas events including an October 2005 tournament in Las Vegas, it has not attempted to offer streams to international audiences. | REUTERS
While the Japan Sumo Association has previously sponsored overseas events including an October 2005 tournament in Las Vegas, it has not attempted to offer streams to international audiences. | REUTERS

Although the smaller size of sumo’s current foreign fanbase limits possible revenue in absolute terms, the sport’s potential audience is huge. Even with sleep-unfriendly time zones and countless roadblocks to live coverage, sumo’s following abroad has continued to expand. The JSA needs to take a “if you build it, they will come” point of view and provide live content that will kick that growth into high gear.

With six of the last seven yokozuna born outside of Japan’s borders and wrestlers from 25 different nations having competed in ōzumo, it’s frankly embarrassing that family, friends and supporters of foreign rikishi, as well as ordinary fans in other countries, still have no option but to jump through countless hoops and surreptitiously seek out links for unauthorized streams just to watch the sport they love.

Not catering to that fanbase isn’t just a lost opportunity for the JSA — it’s actively damaging for the organization.

YouTube is central to the media consumption habits of sumo’s younger fans who will be around for decades to come. Without live streams or extended highlights, sumo’s powers are ceding that space to unofficial sources.

Some of those channels put out solid content, but JSA inaction also risks allowing the conversation around sumo to be dominated by bad-faith actors solely out to increase views and revenue.

Conspiracy theories about soccer, rugby or American football have limited traction because there is so much information available in major sports. In sumo, however, the lack of accessible content means those willing to exploit social media algorithms’ tendency to promote anything sensationalized or controversial can rapidly increase their following — something that can be seen in the rise of conspiracy-theory-heavy sumo YouTube channels in both English and Japanese.

To protect the sport’s reputation and properly reward and nurture sumo’s international audience, the JSA and its partners need to make full livestreaming of tournaments and timely highlight packages an immediate priority.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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