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Sumo Gambling Scandal Prompts Public TV to Take Tourney Off Air

Japan’s public broadcaster canceled its television coverage of a sumo tournament for the first time in 57 years in response to complaints by viewers about some wrestlers’ gambling and signs of links to organized crime.

NHK today said it won’t air the 15-day tournament that starts on July 11 in Japan’s central city of Nagoya. The government network started televising sumo matches in 1953.

The cancellation may add to the exodus of sponsors that started when 65 wrestlers, assistants and entourage members last month admitted to illegal gambling on baseball, mahjong and card games, with some bets allegedly organized through gangsters. Fuji Xerox Co. and at least four other companies have pulled their sponsorship from the Nagoya tournament.

“NHK canceling the broadcast highlights how much of a crisis the sport is in,” said Rio Matsuo, a Tokyo-based accountant and author of books on the sports industry. “It will force the sumo association to seriously review the way it does things.”

NHK will air a digest of the tournament from 6 p.m. Japan time, Shigeo Fukuchi, the broadcaster’s chairman, said. The Tokyo-based network usually airs sumo tournaments between 3:05 p.m. and 6 p.m.

About 68 percent of viewers polled said they didn’t want the Nagoya tournament broadcast, NHK said. The broadcaster said it received 11,100 responses between June 14 and July 4.

“The comments from our viewers have been more severe than ever,” Fukuchi said at a press conference in Tokyo today. “The sumo association must take the situation as a once-in-a-century crisis, and we hope it will take measures to improve its governance.”

Throwing Salt

About 14 percent of Japanese households tuned into the NHK broadcast of the final day of the most recent tournament in May, according to market research company Video Research Ltd.

Sumo, which weaves aspects of Shintoism into matches including a purification ritual that involves throwing salt before bouts, is seeking to protect 8.5 billion yen ($97 million) in annual tournament revenue and repair a reputation already tarnished in recent years by allegations of assault, trainee abuse and drug use.

Sports Minister Tatsuo Kawabata said last week he was concerned about links between the sport and organized crime, including allegations that stablemasters gave front-row tournament tickets to gangsters.

The Japan Sumo Association on July 4 banned wrestler Kotomitsuki and stablemaster Otake for life after they admitted to betting on professional baseball games. More than a dozen other wrestlers were suspended, preventing them from competing in the Nagoya tournament.

Nagatanien Co., Asahi Mutual Life Insurance Co., IHI Corp. and Natori Co. said they won’t sponsor the Nagoya tournament because of the betting scandal.

Sumo tournaments are held six times a year, touring through Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

The origins of sumo date back at least to the 7th century, and one legend has it that a sumo match between two gods determined who would rule Japan. Wrestlers, who are known by a single name, are organized in stables managed by former wrestlers.

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