Thursday, August 3, 2023

The Impact of COVID-19 on Wrestling in Japan

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on the wrestling industry in Japan. In the early days of the pandemic, it forced wrestling events to be canceled or postponed, depriving wrestlers of their livelihood and fans of their entertainment.

While working for Michinoku Pro, I saw many changes. The company went through a number of challenges, including the cancellation of events and the move to online streaming. Michinoku Pro was scheduled to have a show on April 18, 2020, at Shinkiba First Ring in Tokyo. Although it is an Iwate-based company and primarily has events in the Tลhoku region, Michinoku Pro occasionally has events in Tokyo. Ken45 would have made his return to the Michinoku Pro ring at this show, and he had not competed in Michinoku Pro since 2019. And it was a highlight year for Ken45, as he was a co-holder of the Tohoku & UWA World Tag Team Titles from November 2018 to June 2019, which have much history and value behind them. Ken45 is a freelance wrestler and has wrestled in many other promotions over the past 17 years such as BJW, NJPW, and DDT, but he has wrestled in Michinoku Pro more than any other company. So April 18 was going to be a big night for him.

There was also an appearance by an international talent scheduled, as Gaia Hox from Taiwan was booked for the Michinoku Pro event. But because of a Coronavirus policy that Taiwan established in March of that year, Hox suddenly could not fly to any country, and the card had to be changed.

But in the end, Michinoku Pro's April 18 event was not to be. Because of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Tokyo, Japan's central government declared a state of emergency on April 7, and it canceled the event.

Next up on Michinoku Pro's schedule was June 19, 2020, at the Korakuen Hall in Tokyo, which is to Japan what Madison Square Garden is to the wrestling scene in the US. The company planned to celebrate its 27th year of providing pro-wrestling fans with action, drama, and excitement. However, due to the prevention of new coronavirus infection, the event was canceled in late May.

The cancellations continued into the second half of 2020, as the scheduled September 11 Michinoku Pro event at the Korakuen Hall was canceled in July because it was judged that prevention measures could not completely prevent coronavirus infection. This event was scheduled to be the beginning of the "7th World of Fukumen World League", held in Japan from Sept 11th -13th and involving foreign qualifiers (Mexico, Bolivia, USA, Brazil, Netherlands, England, and Asia). Featuring masked talents from around the world, it's one of the most distinctive tourneys in the industry.

Wrestling events are a major source of revenue for wrestling promotions. When events were canceled or postponed, promotions lost a significant amount of money. Also, wrestling events are inherently physical, which made it difficult to implement social distancing and other safety protocols. This made it difficult for promotions to hold live events.

The Korakuen Hall had closed because of COVID-19, and the plan was made that upon reopening, it would hold events with limited capacity and under strict safety protocols. The plan for Stage One of the reopening of the Korakuen Hall, was for there to be a MAX attendance of 497. Also, there would be security barriers around ringside. The plan for Stage Two was for there to be a maximum attendance of 713. As a result, it was difficult for wrestlers and promotions to generate the same level of income as they did before the pandemic. For example, on December 13, 2019, Michinoku Pro had a sellout event at the Korakuen Hall. The attendance was 1,890, which was the highest reported attendance at the hall for a wrestling event since 2015.

Attendance limits also affected Michinoku Pro's scheduling plans for First Ring. The company had considered to have an event there in October 2020, but it was eventually decided that the limited capacity would make it non cost effective. After being away from Tokyo since February 2020, Michinoku Pro finally made its return in December of that year at Korakuen Hall. The event was limited to 647 seats.

During the period that Japan was taking the most precautions against COVID-19, many promotions moved their events to online streaming. This allowed wrestlers to continue to perform and connect with fans, but it also presented challenges. For example, online streaming events typically generated less revenue than live events, and promoters often have difficulty publicizing events online effectively enough to reach fans and generate interest in online events. Publicizing events online differs from publicizing events in person.

As the pandemic has eased, fans have returned to live wrestling events. This has been a boost for the industry, as it has allowed wrestlers to connect with fans in person, like at the July 1, 2022 Michinoku Pro event at the Korakuen Hall, where Fujita Jr. Hayato celebrated his Tohoku Junior Heavyweight Championship win in front of 1,052 fans.

The pandemic has also led to the growth of independent wrestling in Japan. Independent promotions have been able to adapt to the challenges of the pandemic by holding smaller events and streaming events online. Two promotions that are good examples of how this can be done are Michinoku Pro and Yanagase Pro Wrestling. I could connect them with English markets in and outside of Japan, helping them grow in visibility, show attendance, and streaming consumption, as Michinoku Pro presented, "Michinoku Pro Wrestling LIVE" on YouTube, and Yanagase Pro Wrestling utilized TwitCasting.

The future of wrestling in Japan is uncertain, but it is likely that the industry will continue to adapt to the new normal. Live events will remain a major part of the industry, but online streaming will probably play an increasingly important role, with promotions also focusing on more international markets, developing new revenue streams, and creating more innovative content.

No comments:

Post a Comment