With government-sanctioned sports gambling suffering declines across the board, organizers of some events have turned to the fairer sex to try to get back on track.
Sports betting used to be considered pretty much recession-proof, but not anymore. Horse racing, keirin cycling, boat racing, and auto racing continue to suffer sales declines, due mainly to an aging base of core fans and indifference from younger spectators. Even the once-mighty soccer lottery is feeling the pinch.
Organizations in charge of these sporting events are taking various measures to appeal to new fans and boost sales, and often these measures have involved the participation of women in one form or another.
In keirin cycling, for example, professional women’s races will resume for the first time in 48 years this summer. Sales from keirin had plunged from about 2 trillion yen in fiscal 1991 to about 630 billion yen in fiscal 2010. The re-introduction of female cyclists is aimed at cultivating female fans and young males.
However, a legal revision may make it difficult to attract new fans. In April, a law was implemented where the minimum reimbursement rate paid to successful bettors would be reduced from 75 percent to 70 percent. The law was intended to reduce the burden on municipal governments that host keirin races, but it also means successful bettors will receive smaller dividends. Industry insiders fear that this legal revision will end up discouraging fans from betting on keirin.
In boat racing, sales have plummeted to 42 percent from their peak. To boost interest in the sport, boat race organizers will be crowning a prize-winning queen this fiscal year, honoring the top women’s racer on the water.
In auto racing, revenues have shrunk to 24 percent of the peak. Female racers were re-introduced for the first time in 44 years last summer to help boost popularity.
In the “sport of kings,” sales from the Japan Racing Association’s national horse races peaked at 4 trillion yen in 1997, but plunged to 2.3 trillion yen in 2011. The figure has been declining for 14 straight years. Last year, the JRA booked a loss for the first time in 54 years. It booked 6.3 billion yen in losses after extraordinary losses totaled 12.4 billion yen, including repair costs for the Fukushima Race Course damaged by the Great East Japan Earthquake as well as donations to quake-hit regions.
The JRA had been taking various measures in the past few years to appeal to fans and hopefully recover its popularity. These measures include “Free pass day,” in which admission is free for fans at race tracks; sales of online betting slips called Win5, which give buyers a shot at winning up to 200 million yen; and JRA Direct betting slips, which can be purchased by credit card.
“We want to show people that horse racing is for everyone,” says JRA Corporate Planning Department chief Masayoshi Yoshida. “It’s very casual. The key words are ‘familiar,’ ‘user-friendly’ and ‘easy to participate.’”
The JRA estimates that central racing attracts some 4.83 million fans. That’s roughly 5 percent of the Japanese population over the age of 20. Yoshida wants to tap into the remaining 95 percent of the adult population. This fall, he aims to boost his sport’s popularity by joining hands with rural horse racing organizers. The JRA will enable fans to buy, via phone, betting slips for inter-regional races jointly hosted by the JRA and rural racing associations.
Meanwhile, the soccer lottery toto raised about 82.7 billion yen last fiscal year. The lottery called “Big,” offering a maximum 600 million yen prize, is selling especially well. But Ichiro Kono, president of the National Agency for the Advancement of Sports and Health (NAASH), which runs the soccer lottery, has his concerns.
“There is a sense of crisis,” Kono said at an April 26 Japanese Olympic Committee board of directors meeting.
Kono fears that many current buyers of the “Big” lottery will switch to buying the general government-run lottery because a draft revision was submitted to the Diet that would boost the upper limit on the top winner of the general lottery from the current 300 million yen to 750 million yen. Tickets sell for 300 yen each.
All these declining numbers in state-run sports betting affect the fiscal soundness of the entire sports industry in Japan as some of these gambling revenues are used to support other sports projects. For example, the JKA, the organization that runs keirin and auto races in Japan, has provided a 50 million yen subsidy to the Japanese Olympic Committee.
The sports industry is also planning to shoulder roughly 100 billion yen in costs to rebuild the National Stadium, which is slated as a main stadium in Tokyo’s bid for the 2020 Olympics.
Also at the April 26 JOC board of directors meeting, Seiko Hashimoto -- a JOC director and lawmaker -- revealed that a non-partisan group of lawmakers promoting sports is considering building a national training center in Fukushima Prefecture that will be dedicated to sports for those with physical disabilities. Much of the funds for that project will have to rely on revenue from the soccer lottery toto, because the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology’s sports-related budget is only 23.8 billion yen a year.
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