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Corporations Adopt Lower Sports Profile

June 30, 1998

Athletes are finding it harder to win one for the company these days. (Kyodo)

Corporate-sponsored sports in Japan are falling prey to the profits-first principle. In the past, corporate-sponsored athletics flourished in Japan to the point where corporations essentially ran organized sports in this country. Now many companies are withdrawing their teams from semiprofessional league competition, either permanently or temporarily, and a number of athletes who have devoted their best years to their sports and sponsors are finding they have done so for naught.

As the Economy Sags, Teams Fold
With Japan's economy in its biggest slump since World War II, one longstanding corporate team after another is being folded or idled: the supermarket giant Daiei's track and field team; Nippon Steel's baseball and mens' basketball teams; the mens' volleyball and soccer teams sponsored by NKK, another steel giant; and the baseball and mens' volleyball teams sponsored by Kumagai Gumi, a big name in the construction industry. Amid the worsening economy, companies figure that maintaining a team is no longer worth the several hundred million yen a year they pay for administrative and operating costs and athletes' salaries.

With their roles in their companies increasingly up in the air, the athletes find themselves at a loss. Big, stable companies were supposed to provide them with a ticket to the top of their sports. Now, caught up in the maelstrom of Japan's economic restructuring, they are forced to seek work elsewhere. Active teams will pick up the really outstanding athletes. But the careers of less outstanding ones are shattered. Such a fate befell one 37-year-old member of Kumagai Gumi's baseball team: "Suddenly one day, I was told the team was going to fold, and I had two choices--either stay with the company in an office job or look for work elsewhere. I wanted to keep playing baseball, so I decided to join another team. But the team that asked me to join changed its mind right before I was supposed to start working for the company, and in the end, I gave up baseball. Now I'm making a living by doing part-time work."

Marathon Runners as Mobile Advertisements
Corporate sponsorship of athletics in Japan peaked during the 1970s and 1980s. As the popularity of marathon and ekiden (long-distance relay) races grew, companies rushed to establish track and field teams. The runners acted as mobile advertisements by appearing on TV with their sponsors' names emblazoned across their chests; this was highly effective PR. During the 1980s, many newly established companies seized on sports as an advertising medium to boost their public image.

When the athletes practice hard and perform well, the company's image goes up. The athletes are usually corporate employees and receive a regular salary regardless of their performance. Japan's lifetime employment system ensures them a position even after their sports careers end. This arrangement is unique to Japan; athletes in other countries have to go out and look for their own sponsors and must consider what they are going to do after retiring from competition. Compared with their counterparts in other countries, Japanese athletes have had it easy.

But that was before the economy went sour, forcing many companies to scrap or mothball their teams. However, not every such company is doing this for purely economic reasons. Some have made the decision after asking themselves what the real purpose of having a sports team is. Sumitomo Metals recently did away with its volleyball and basketball teams, and according to one person involved, "It wasn't because of increasing costs. It was more because the number athlete-employees--with their special privileges--kept growing, and this was beginning to affect workplace morale among non-athlete employees."

Calling on Sports Organizations for Leadership
If this decline in corporate athletic sponsorship continues, many worry, sports in Japan as a whole will suffer. Where will the athletes go once they graduate from high school or college if companies cannot take them in? Until recently, Japanese corporations have had a pervasive influence on all aspects of society, including sports. Having been dominated by corporate interests for so long, though, the athletic community in this country lacks autonomy, and that could be the biggest problem confronting Japanese athletics right now. Pressure is beginning to mount on the Japan Olympic Committee, Japan Amateur Sports Association, and the various sporting associations to exercise leadership and seriously consider the future of sports in Japan.

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Trends in JapanEdited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.

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