Sumo catches new audience with Pokemon collaboration

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The first grand sumo tournament of 2022 was in need of some tension, but Takakeisho’s stumble out of the starting blocks robbed made that less likely.

The 25-year-old withdrew from the New Year Basho on Day 4 citing a foot injury.

The title race remains more-or-less unaffected as the ozeki would have needed to equal his career-best record (13-2) to have any hope of lifting the Emperor’s Cup.

That would have required going unbeaten until Jan. 22 and taking down yokozuna Terunofuji in the process — an unlikely feat, and even that may not have been enough to earn silverware.

Since his final-day defeat to Hakuho in July, Terunofuji has lost a grand total of two bouts.

Currently on a 21-match winning streak, the likelihood of sumo’s 73rd yokozuna losing twice in regulation this tournament — and then once more to Takakeisho in a playoff — had already seemed remote.

As of Wednesday, Terunofuji’s run is tied with the 46th-longest winning streak in sumo. If he makes it to the end of the ongoing meet without a loss, he’ll jump to the 11th longest.

At that stage, the only rikishi ahead of him would be Futabayama, Hakuho, Chiyonofuji, Taiho and Asashoryu. In other words, Terunofuji’s name would be listed with some of the greatest wrestlers in the history of the sport.

It’s a sign of just how incredible the Isegahama stable man’s second coming has been, that discussing a third-straight tournament win following promotion to yokozuna — and a historically significant win streak — doesn’t seem remotely incongruous.

“American Underdog,” a film currently playing in U.S. theaters, details the journey of Kurt Warner from undrafted NFL backup — out of the league and stacking shelves at a supermarket — to Super Bowl-winning quarterback in the Hall of Fame.

Terunofuji’s story rivals Warner’s in terms of unlikely returns from the depths. But given his continuing rise, the yokozuna may need to add a few extra chapters to his recent book if it eventually does get made into a movie.

Terunofuji’s ongoing dominance isn’t the only storyline carrying over from last year.

Concussion discussion

The treatment and management of head injuries continues to be a problem in 2022.

A clearly concussed Ura shouldn’t have been let back up into the ring on Day 2, nor should the popular wrestler have been allowed to compete again just 24 hours later.

While it’s good to see yobidashi and others rushing to a wrestler’s aid much faster than in the past, sumo remains in desperate need of independent head injury assessment by medical professionals with the power to pull wrestlers from competition.

Although Japan’s national sport is often accused of clinging too tightly to tradition and being resistant to change, it hasn’t always been the case.

At times, sumo has even led the way, such as in 1969 when it became one of the first sports in the world to incorporate instant replay into officiating.

Referees at the opening day of the New Year Basho wore Pokemon-inspired outfits as part of a collaboration between the hit video-game franchise and the Japan Sumo Association. | THE POKEMON COMPANY

Powerful partnership

While we wait for improvements inside the ring, the Japan Sumo Association has been forging ahead with development outside it.

A recent move is one that could have a positive impact on the sport for decades to come.

Over the past few months, the JSA has been running a collaboration campaign with massive media franchise Pokemon.

Special Pokemon-themed sponsorship banners, referee kimono, and ceremonial aprons are just some of the items that have been produced as part of the campaign.

Although sumo and Pokemon may seem an odd pairing, the tie-up has to be a dream come true for the JSA.

In addition to the welcome boost in funds, access to the Nintendo franchise’s huge market is invaluable.

Globally, Pokemon is as big as Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe combined. Its $109 billion (¥12.5 trillion) in revenue far outstrips the $20 billion of Lord of the Rings or the $14 billion of James Bond — franchises that have been going for decades longer.

Even better for sumo is the fact that the vast majority of Pokemon’s audience is made up of elementary school children.

Getting your sport in front of young eyeballs in an era when dozens — if not hundreds — of other activities and companies are vying for their attention is a golden opportunity.

Exposure to a younger audience doesn’t only create a new generation of fans — it also helps with recruiting the rikishi of the future for a sport that has one of the highest barriers to entry in the country.

In addition to the relatively low number of clubs nationally, sumo as a school-run activity has virtually disappeared over the past half-century. Very few junior or senior high schools even have a ring anymore.

For those willing to overcome the embarrassment of sumo’s near-nudity, just finding somewhere to practice isn’t easy.

Soccer and baseball are firmly established in virtually every school in Japan from the elementary level on up, and have any number of private clubs within reach — at least in urban areas — making it very easy to try those sports or switch teams.

Any child interested in sumo usually needs committed parents willing to travel every weekend and take a more active role in clubs than would be necessary in sports with much higher participation numbers.

The Pokemon partnership will help boost sumo’s exposure among a key demographic.

Promotional videos featuring characters like Makuhita (a fighting-type Pokemon that itself resembles a sumo wrestler) and Snorlax training with rikishi and doing sumo in the Kokugikan will inevitably get picked up by foreign media and lead to rare international coverage that doesn’t deal with scandal.

2022 has been good outside the ring so far. Now we just need improvements inside it.

A number of Pokemon-themed kesho-mawashi ceremonial belts have been designed for wrestlers at the first grand sumo tournament of 2022. | THE POKEMON COMPANY
A number of Pokemon-themed kesho-mawashi ceremonial belts have been designed for wrestlers at the first grand sumo tournament of 2022. | THE POKEMON COMPANY

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