Sumo Is Losing This Shoving Match

Young fans prefer soccer and baseball to ritual-filled wrestling

Time was, the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament was a sure draw: Thousands of fans would pack the sold-out Aichi Prefectural Gymnasium to watch 200-kilo giants clad in bellybands shove each other out of an elevated ring. The tradition and ceremony of sumo--with its judges in colorful robes of 14th century noblemen and wrestlers tossing salt in the air to ward off evil spirits--touched something deep in the Japanese soul. These days, though, sumo seems to be losing its grip on Japan, and thousands of seats remained empty during the two-week Nagoya tournament in July. "People don't trust old, traditional institutions right now," laments Uragoro Takasago, director of the Japan Sumo Assn., the sport's governing body.

That mistrust has pushed fabled sumo into a serious funk. Ticket sales to tournaments have dropped by more than 10% in the past two years, and television ratings are off by 35% since 1998. Younger fans, especially, prefer Japan's trim soccer and baseball stars to sumo's hulking heroes. "Soccer players are really cool, but I absolutely never watch sumo," says Taeko Sugimoto, 20, who works in a health-food store in Tokyo's Ginza district. One result of the sport's lack of youth appeal: Corporate sponsors of sumo have fallen to about 50 from 150 a decade ago as companies such as Nissan Motor Co. (NSANY ) and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. focus their sports-marketing efforts elsewhere.

In part, sumo's problems can be chalked up to bad timing--and bad luck. Popular mid-1990s grand champions such as Wakanohana and Hawaiian-born Akebono have retired. And current grand champion Takanohana has missed the past seven tourneys because of a knee injury. "There are no superstars in sumo" at the moment, says Takayuki Yokota, investor-relations chief at Mizuho Holdings Inc., a subsidiary of which sponsored sumo in the mid-1990s but has no plans to do so again.

With the sport's popularity waning, cultivating new wrestlers isn't easy--especially given the grueling training rituals of professional sumo. One important part of the regimen is for wrestlers to slam their open palms repeatedly against a wood pole to develop strength and coordination. Then there are the 500-plus leg-lifts they must do daily. And the traditional diet can be a turn-off, too: It consists primarily of chankonabe--a stew of three meats, tofu, cabbage, carrots, and onions in fish broth--washed down with several liters of beer every day. The payoff: Top performers can pull in $300,000 or more yearly. That's a pittance, however, compared with the multimillion dollar contracts that baseball and soccer stars command.

The Japan Sumo Assn. doesn't deny that the sport has an image problem. Yet critics say the group doesn't have any good ideas for getting sumo back in the ring. Run by former wrestlers, the association has little grasp of sports marketing, says Clyde Newton, editor of Sumo World magazine, and is locked into the same medieval mindset that is central to the sport's appeal. The group has "no strategy, and there is a very entrenched bureaucratic culture," he adds.

Association officials counter that they are developing a plan to help sumo recover its popularity. They have cut some seat prices, and tickets are now being sold at convenience stores to help pull in more fans. Furthermore, the group is trying to attract more foreign wrestlers to the sport to spice up the competition, and it has relaxed rules on allowing product endorsements by wrestlers in a bid to raise their profile.

But cheaper tickets and wrestlers hawking rice crackers won't be enough to rescue sumo. Association director Takasago, a highly regarded wrestler who used the name of Asashio before retiring in 1989, recognizes that. He says the key to the future success of sumo is convincing fans that it isn't just a sport. Sumo, he says, represents the best values of Japanese society: hard work, discipline, and humility. "There is a spiritual side to sumo that is part of our national culture," says the 150-kilo Takasago. If the sport can capitalize on its timelessness and kabuki-like pageantry and boost its appeal to the young, sumo may still have a future. If not, it may well be shoved out of the ring of media attention as Japan seeks its entertainment elsewhere.

By Brian Bremner in Tokyo

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