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Is sumo’s popularity heading for a slump?

Unlikely a prospect as that may seem after a three-year run of thrilling title finishes, unexpected champions and miraculous comebacks, there has been a palpable mood shift among fans in recent weeks and — in a sport notorious for periods of boom and bust — early warning signs can’t be ignored.

While a notable uptick in the number of “this tournament is boring”-type posts on social media can partially be attributed to the fickle nature of sports fandom in general, as well as the lack of a storyline in September to rival those of recent times, the fact that engagement and discussion around sumo appears to be waning has to be of concern.

To be clear, it’s a subtle downturn and one probably not even noticed by most of the sport’s hardcore supporters.

That demographic, of course, is one that sumo powers need never worry about. In good times or bad they spend hours online every day producing or consuming content and spend a significant portion of their income on tickets and merchandise.

However, every sport’s core audience always needs to be bolstered by a wider more casual fan base, and the creation of new fans is vital to surviving and thriving in the industry.

Last week’s column dealt with the need to improve engagement with foreign supporters, but while promotion and organization are indeed important elements of growth, the beating heart of any sport will always be the drama happening in the arena.

That’s a maxim truer than ever almost two years into a pandemic that has people desperately seeking relief from endless bad news.

Sport provides a kind of interactive escapism rarely found elsewhere. The high that comes from being part of a 50,000-strong crowd whose noise is affecting the action on the field is hard to replicate. Recent footage of packed and rocking stadiums full of unmasked fans from places with far lower vaccination rates than those in Japan perfectly illustrate the pull of live sport.

Now that he has reached the top rank of yokozuna, Terunofuji will need to find new ways to capture the imagination of sumo fans. | KYODO
Now that he has reached the top rank of yokozuna, Terunofuji will need to find new ways to capture the imagination of sumo fans. | KYODO

Rarely, though, do people encounter football, sumo or soccer for the first time in person at the highest professional level. To enjoy a continuous stream of fans paying in at such events, governing bodies must ensure that their sport reaches as many eyeballs as possible. The more dramatic and exciting the action is, the better the chances of it being covered in the media and discussed online.

That could be a problem for sumo as its top division appears to be settling into the kind of chronic stability that is so damaging to sport.

Terunofuji’s comeback was one of the greatest achievements in the history of sumo, but the drama is gone now that the Isegahama stable man has made it to the mountaintop and looks set to stay there for quite a while.

With Hakuho out, the younger yokozuna has also faced few obstacles along what seems to be an inevitable march to a fifth Emperor’s Cup.

Sumo is a sport that has traditionally relied on rivalries at the top of the rankings to drive interest. In periods without a pair of great yokozuna, rising stars have normally taken up the slack.

The fear right now is that many of those earmarked for stardom haven’t lived up to expectations while Terunofuji, for all his ability, doesn’t have the kind of love-to-hate, final-boss aura that made Hakuho and Asashoryu’s fights must-watch television even when they were dominating opponents.

Injuries and suspension may have hobbled hopes of seeing Takakeisho and Asanoyama provide a true challenge to the new yokozuna, but there are reasons to be hopeful for sumo’s near-term future.

Hoshoryu (below) wowed fans on Day 9 of the Autumn Basho with an ipponzeoi win over Wakatakakage. | KYODO
Hoshoryu (below) wowed fans on Day 9 of the Autumn Basho with an ipponzeoi win over Wakatakakage. | KYODO

Although it’s been a rough September for Hoshoryu, the 22-year-old continues to impress. His Day 9 ipponzeoi win over Wakatakakage is the highlight of the tournament to date, and it’s clear that Asashoryu’s nephew is on the path to greater heights.

Most telling is the way in which, despite early struggles and losses against bigger or more experienced opponents such as Tobizaru, Ichinojo, Kaisei and Kotonowaka, the young Mongolian has figured out ways to win and improved his overall head-to-head record.

Hoshoryu has just a jonidan division title and single special prize to his name thus far, but 2022 figures to be the year he breaks out. Based in the building where Takakeisho trained daily until last February, the Tatsunami stable rikishi could also replace the ozeki as Terunofuji’s main rival next year. Even if it takes longer for that to happen, Hoshoryu’s exciting brand of sumo should ensure plenty of thrills in the sport’s upper reaches over the next couple of years.

In the slightly longer term, the idea of the massive pair of Hokuseiho and Shishi should evoke memories of a time when Hakuho and Kotooshu were considered the main budding rivalry in sumo. With Hokuseiho being a protege of that yokozuna and Shishi a tall and strong — if somewhat uncoordinated — eastern European, the comparisons are obvious. Both young men have had their progression to the top ranks interrupted for different reasons, with Shishi falling to a first-ever losing record and Hokuseiho sitting out this tournament because of a COVID-19 outbreak in his stable.

Neither wrestler is a finished product, but the potential is there for a great rivalry over the next five to six years at least.

If sumo is to avoid a repeat of the banks of empty seats visible on television screens in the wake of the scandals that rocked the sport just over a decade ago, it’s vital that these young stars fulfill their promise.

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