Valentine: In the last decade, there has been an international surge in the popularity of amateur and professional sumo, while interest continues to dwindle in Japan. In India and Thailand, amateur clubs are popping up, and NHK broadcasts can be seen in parts of Oceania as well as South America. Worldwide, the popularity is growing faster in Mongolia and Eastern Europe than anywhere else.
In Mongolia, the popularity has soared because firstly the strengthening of relations between Japan and Mongolia, resulting in more Japanese business, money, products, etc. in Mongolia. Secondly, it’s only natural sumo would be popular in such a place. After being bitch-slapped around for centuries between Russia and China, Mongolia finally has a chance to look at nations beyond its bully neighbors. There’s NHK broadcasts on TV in Mongolia now, and there is sumo, which is not only similarly steeped in tradition as Mongolian bökh, but the rules and techniques are also similar. As popular as bökh is in the homeland, it is only natural young men from this tradition would want to go to Japan and join in sumo (read: more food, more money, more women).
The successes of Eastern Europe’s “home-grown talent” is not the reason for sumo’s popularity in the region, because the notion of “home-grown talent” is not accurate. Don’t get me wrong, Baruto is a household name in tiny (yet awesome) Estonia now, but don’t expect the Polish to care for his success, though sumo is a hit in Poland right now. Don’t expect the Polish to care for Bulgarian Kotooshu’s success, or Russian Aran’s success either. Do you think the French care for Beckham’s success in soccer? Do you think Germans care for Roger Federer’s success in tennis? How about the South Koreans caring for Ichiro’s success in baseball? As a Russian friend once told me “We were repressed from studying Western self-defense techniques during the communist days. We weren’t, however, repressed from studying Eastern martial arts, simply because the Soviets didn’t really understand it.” Interest in martial arts like judo proliferated all over Eastern Europe, and still does today. After the fall of communism, the interest has continued to grow in breadth, and now encompasses sumo. There’s no Polish rikishi today, but with the popularity of sumo in Poland, there will be one in the near future, then others.
Considering the rise of popularity of amateur and professional sumo in Mongolia, Eastern Europe, and other regions of the world, it’s worth asking why then, in the West, is sumo only seen in matches between drunk fat women in inflatable suits at the Texas State Fair? Given the backgrounds and nationalities of our contributors and readership, I for one would like to hear what ideas do you have to make sumo popular in the West?
Creswell: Being from the good ol’ US of A, I can’t really comment on the sports climate in other countries. However, given my experience in my own country, I can say that I think we need to worry about buying the chicken before we worry about laying eggs. With the exception of Hawaii, a few bigger cities in Canada, and various cities on the west coast, most of North America does not have large pockets of native Japanese population. So interest in and understanding of the sport needs to be fostered before we can worry about producing amateur and pro sumo clubs and ultimately cranking out top notch rikishi to compete in honbasho, because let’s face it American’s won’t watch ozumo intently unless there is an American in the makuuchi ranks.
Now it’s not like there isn’t time on one of ESPN’s million channels. For fuck’s sake, poker is not a sport. Get that out and put some real sport in there. However, if we just popped sumo in there without any background no one would watch it. Moreover, if a sport wants to make in America, and make it seriously, it needs to be marketable, and companies need to be able to make money off of it. Cats need to be able to sell gear, clothes, accessories, etc. Sumo doesn’t exactly lend itself to these things. There isn’t much, save the mawashi for brand names to be plastered on.
Sumo needs to have its strengths played out. In my opinion sumo is the best spectator sport. Approximately 3-5 minutes of ceremony that means pretty much nothing to Joe America. During this time one is free to eat, drink, gamble, and BS with one’s friends, while vaguely listening to the commentary. This is followed by 1 second to about 1 minute where one actually needs to pay attention. You even get a slow-mo replay. Sumo’s 6 tournament season has good potential, as it is always relatively accessible. In addition the rapid banzuke turnover makes for good drama and lends itself to exciting fantasy leagues. However the near media blackout state, at least in English, we get after each basho can be concerning, but that can be easily remedied by a few multilingual correspondents to pick up the news from Japan during down time. (hear that ESPN… I wouldn’t mind a press pass.) After that, all it would really take is some flashy graphics to explain rules and kimarite.
There are already pockets of amateur wrestlers in the states, wrestling for varied organizations, the largest of which seems to be the California Sumo Association. However, the US Sumo Open Competition, hosted by the California Sumo Association, is already dominated by Eastern Europe and Mongolia as well, with all but 1 of the 4 division titles going to Mongolians this year. In fact, ever since the Mongolians started competing in 2006 the Americans have only won 2 out of a possible 20 division 1st place titles. Although these numbers are only for the men’s divisions.
There are a lot of hurdles sumo has to jump to become big in the west, but I certainly think it can make it. A first good step would be to see sumo become an Olympic sport. The second would be to market the crap out of its strengths. Until these two things happen we won’t see many American/Western European rikishi in the big show, at least until Chalmers gets scouted by Fujishima beya.
Daly: An American in professional sumo combined with the power of social online content could bring a greater interest to the sport. There are however barriers. For one, there are currently no rikishi in the association who are officially considered American. That being said, there is a great amateur association in California doing its best to promote the sport. The organization has even begun to harness the power of online video that I believe will help create a larger fan base (though I would suggest they move their content to YouTube).
As Internet websites have essentially proven: if you build it (and your content is interesting) they will come. Great examples of this online for sumo (and by far the best written content, in my opinion) would be sumotalk.com and of course, ourselves. Find people with a shared interest or information other people are looking for, and they will find each other. Sumo is no different for the West. I believe the barrier however to Sumo and the West finding each other, beyond novelty customs, and the occasional tourist one stop trip to the Japan, is a lack of video content online. Sure NHK allows viewers worldwide to view a live feed without any announcers, but we all know it takes an interest to stay up and actually watch that. Sumo needs an online video presence to connect to the West.
Mediums such as Youtube and iTunes offer the association/NHK options to greatly expand their viewership and create a simpler method for fans to purchase historic and or interesting bouts. Allowing your content onto YouTube could also (depending on how the association/NHK chose to copyright material*) allow fans to easily rebroadcast videos into different languages around the world. Every video with your sumo association content could automatically be set up to link to iTunes where viewers could purchase the content.
The amount of money and promotion the Sumo Association would get out of this move would be unlike anything it could probably imagine. The remixes of content would benefit everyone: fans, rikishi, sumo elders, and people who simply know nothing about sumo and Japan! This might sound overly optimistic, but I believe this is the kind of potential available to the Association if it takes the Internet a little more seriously.
*YouTube has great information on the benefits of using their site and allowing others to remix content. It would be something they should look into.