TOPICS/ S&B Foods to disband track team, but future of corporate-sponsored sports looks brighter

September 22, 2012

By HIDEKI SHIGA/ Staff Writer

Japan’s floundering economy has prompted the shutdown of many corporate sports teams over the past several decades. The latest: the track and field team long sponsored by S&B Foods Inc.

S&B Foods announced last month that it will discontinue its track and field club at the end of this fiscal year, putting an end to its roughly 60-year history. But as we shall see, it isn’t all bad news regarding corporate-sponsored sports in Japan.

GAMBLE ON MARATHON FAILS

“It’ll be sad not to see that red uniform anymore,” said a member of a rival corporate track and field team when he heard about S&B Foods disbanding the club.

S&B Foods has been a leading company in terms of corporate sports, particularly long distance track. Past members of its track and field team include former marathon runner and current running coach Toshihiko Seko and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics marathon runner Nanae Nagata.

The corporate team also won the All-Japan Corporate Team Ekiden Championships four years in a row starting in 1984. But since 2001, the team has been focusing on strengthening individual events such as marathon.

Ekiden and marathon commentator Tetsuhiko Kin explains recent trends that may have led to the decline in Japan’s overall weakness in long-distance individual events.

“With the heated popularity of ekiden in recent years, it has become difficult for companies to juggle both ekiden and marathon,” Kin said. “And runners have become satisfied with domestic races and lost their competitive edge in marathon, a sport in which the rest of the world raised its levels. So the gap with the world has widened.”

Seko, who now coaches the S&B Foods track and field team, took the initiative to get companies and athletes to focus less on ekiden and regain Japan’s past glory in marathon.

S&B Foods succeeded in sending employee Tomoaki Kunichika to the 2004 Athens Olympics to compete in the marathon, but failed to send any of its employees to the 2008 Beijing Olympics or the 2012 London Olympics.

Seko takes responsibility for his team not producing results.

“Considering the business environment, it was inevitable for the company to shut down the track and field team,” he told reporters.

COLLAPSE OF BUBBLE ECONOMY PROMPTS DOWNTURN

In the past, corporate sports teams were considered significant public relations vehicles and a symbol of uniting employees.

Corporate sports teams had led Japan’s sports industry during the years of rapid economic growth(from mid-1950s until early '70s). In the past, companies in the textiles and the steel industries invested a lot in sports teams, while more recent industries include automakers and computer makers.

The companies whose teams were in the running to win competitions were the stars of that generation.

But when the asset-inflated economy collapsed in the early 1990s, many prominent corporate sports teams had to be disbanded due to shrinking financial resources. Such companies included volleyball strongholds Unitika Ltd. and Hitachi Ltd., and a basketball giant that is now called JFE Steel Corp. The most prominent damage has been seen in baseball. There were 237 corporate baseball teams nationwide in 1963. But the number has now fallen to 87, or roughly one-third.

The wave of corporate team closures has seemingly slowed down after the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment firm Lehman Brothers. Waseda University Faculty of Sport Sciences professor Munehiko Harada said that corporate support for sports has taken on a new form better suited to this day and age. That new form is starting to take root, he added.

“In the past, major corporations took on huge roles and invested a lot of money. Now, small to midsize community based enterprises are supporting sports teams on a more manageable scale,” Harada said.

JOC SEEKS SUITORS FOR ATHLETES

What kind of support do athletes need under the current environment? One example is a recent program begun by the Japanese Olympic Committee.

The JOC has been playing matchmaker between potential corporate sponsors and athletes in need of jobs and stable training environments.

In the past two years, the JOC has succeeded in helping nine athletes gain employment with corporate sponsors. And some athletes have already given back to their companies. At the London Olympics, swimmer Haruka Ueda--who was hired by soy sauce maker Kikkoman Corp.--won a bronze medal in the women's 400-meter medley relay.

“Many companies are interested in supporting sports,” said a JOC official involved in the matchmaking program. “We hope this program will lead to a positive cycle.”

The sports industry also has high hopes that the program will produce mutually satisfying “relationships” for both athletes and sponsor firms.

Other companies are supporting minor sports gaining popularity in local communities. Bourbon Corp., a snack-maker based in Kashiwazaki, Niigata Prefecture, bought the naming rights to a local water polo team in 2010, and began financially supporting the team.

The manufacturer hopes that sponsoring the team will contribute to revitalizing the local community, and is now planning to send the team to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

By HIDEKI SHIGA/ Staff Writer
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Marathon runner Tomoaki Kunichika, right, who won the 2003 Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship, and then-coach Toshihiko Seko are two of the last Olympians to emerge from S&B Foods' track and field team. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Marathon runner Tomoaki Kunichika, right, who won the 2003 Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship, and then-coach Toshihiko Seko are two of the last Olympians to emerge from S&B Foods' track and field team. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Marathon runner Tomoaki Kunichika, right, who won the 2003 Fukuoka International Open Marathon Championship, and then-coach Toshihiko Seko are two of the last Olympians to emerge from S&B Foods' track and field team. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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