Recently, I had the chance to sit down with the team from BuySumoTickets.com. Many of our readers (and even writers!) have had questions about the very murky and high demand sumo ticketing process, so the team at BuySumoTickets agreed to have a chat with us. We talked about the challenges of sumo ticketing, what compelled them to start the business, and what kinds of offerings they provide for sumo fans and tourists.
With the introduction of new ticket tiers for 2020, ticket price increases, and the BuySumoTickets pre-sale having just started for the 2020 Hatsu basho – and with several upcoming rikishi retirement ceremonies on the horizon – it seemed the appropriate time for us to present this content.
Tachiai: You opened the site in 2008. What made you want to provide this service for foreign customers?
BuySumoTickets: My girlfriend was on a travel forum and someone was asking how to get tickets for sumo. She said, “Oh, my boyfriend knows how to do that. Send us the money and your shipping address and we’ll send them out.” It was an exercise in trust!
I did that first one for free, and I had a “wait a minute!” moment: “Why did I do that for free?” Later that day I had a domain registered. It took a few days to build the site. At the time, the Sumo Kyokai had an old site which had an English version. On that English site it said, “let’s show you how easy it is to buy these tickets for the sumo!” It had a little cartoon drawing of a guy on a phone. It said, “Call this number, in Japanese please!” I just thought, “OK, I can do a better job than this.” And I did.
My expectations when we opened it were very low, and it has vastly exceeded those expectations. I was thinking maybe I could buy a few PlayStation games with the extra money. It took a few years, but then it turned into a full time thing.
It’s well known that you have seen a huge rise in interest for tickets, as it has become harder to get tickets for tournaments in general. What moments in sumo have corresponded with these increases?
The first big drop (in demand) we saw first was the retirement of Asashoryu. For a while, you had the Asashoryu-Hakuho rivalry going on, and when Asashoryu retired, sales went down amongst the Japanese. I don’t mean our customers, I mean overall sales.
The first time we really saw what the Sumo Kyokai was capable of, was when Hakuho was going for the consecutive win streak [in 2010], and the days when he was scheduled to tie and break that record were the middle weekend of the Fukuoka basho. Fukuoka had always been easy for us to get tickets, at least at that stage. When sales opened for those dates, there was nothing. Nothing! That’s when I learned they are both capable and willing of holding all of the tickets back for an entire day.
But in general, do you know what the first (huge jump) was? Everyone’s going to think it was Kisenosato but it started way before that.
I would think it would be something weird, like Kyokutenho winning his surprise tournament.
The first time when the ticket sales really started increasing, was when Endo got into makuuchi and people started going nuts. I remember thinking after a ticket buy, “oof, that didn’t go as well as it should have.” (Demand) just started getting higher and higher, and we had to start eliminating ticket types from our website, the rarer ticket types that we used to be able to get. All because of Endo!
By the year that Kisenosato won the most matches but didn’t win a tournament (2016), I was starting to panic. I was thinking, “this is bad, this is getting horrible, we’re going to be forced out of business.” When he won that next tournament, I went “oh no!”
But we adapted, we made some contacts that were mutually beneficial, and we were able to survive the Kisenosato era. At least in Tokyo, I don’t see (the demand) reducing any time soon. The main things were Endo and Kisenosato.
Has it become easier to acquire tickets, or has it changed since Kisenosato’s retirement?
It’s become a tad easier, in the cities except Tokyo. In Tokyo, it’s actually got worse! I think the reason for that is the Sumo Association is giving out more of the tickets before public sales open than they were before. It’s easy for them! In other cities, it’s starting to ease off a little to the point where it’s: “can we get you some really good seats,” and not: “can we get you any seats at all.”
Were you able to sell any tickets for Kisenosato’s retirement?
No. We had a couple people request it. It never went on public sale. My understanding is that after his fan club and the stable got done with it, there were only a few tickets left. They put them on a website with a lottery system, and that website crashed for several hours. When that website came back up, there was nothing left.
They do special websites for many of them. I went and talked to Satoyama when he was out hustling to sell tickets for his danpatsu-shiki. His was the day before, and he was working for a while to sell tickets for his.
We’ve done a lot of good for his event.
I have to imagine a lot of people who would like to see Kisenosato’s and can’t get in, would still like to go to that type of event.
Most of our customers don’t know who Kisenosato is! You think you guys [Tachiai and its readers, big sumo fans] are the majority of the customers. You aren’t – you’re a very small minority. The vast majority of our customers are regular tourists seeing sumo for the first time, as a curiosity while they are in Japan. Some of those will become hooked, and join your group (of fans). But the vast majority of our customers do not know who Kisenosato is – if they did, we wouldn’t need the guide (that we send with all orders).
Does that come down to really good SEO? People might say, “I want to buy sumo tickets!” And that is your name.
Yeah. We advertise in various places, but word of mouth is a big one now. There are other sites out there that charge a whole lot more than what we’re charging. We think that’s kind of a jerk thing to do.
What’s the most complicated thing about dealing with a customer from overseas who is not already a fan, and just wants to see sumo?
The most complicated thing is people who don’t understand that sumo tickets are not easy to get. That in Tokyo at least, very, very few tickets are made available to the public. I get people mailing me – and this is serious – demanding front row ringside tickets for Senshuraku in Tokyo! When I say that’s impossible, they say, “Why not? Sales haven’t opened yet!”
Was it Paul McCartney?
Even he didn’t get ringside when he went to Fukuoka!
We get messages like, “I want to sit in the first row of the balcony, north side.” When someone says “North side,” we know they don’t know what they’re talking about. They say, “North side, front row”… that’s the Emperor’s Box! He’s not going to let you use it. Even if it wasn’t the Emperor’s Box, those tickets would not be made available.
The Sumo Association has been extremely clear with us: foreign tourists are their lowest priority. People assume when tickets go on sale that all tickets should have been available, and if we don’t get something for them, that we’ve failed. But we’re very clear about what we do on our website, that we can’t buy tickets if they’re not available, that it’s a preorder, which means we try. There’s never a guarantee, and we say on the site there’s never a guarantee. So it’s the foreign tourists – not the fans – but the tourists, who don’t understand that sumo tickets are hard to get.
You supply a really good introduction to sumo document to your customers. What’s the one thing that you wish customers would know about going to see sumo?
If you lose your ticket, you’re not going in the building!
The document and the packages always say, “Treat this as cash.”
We put that there at the request of the Sumo Association after they got sick of our customers going to the venue with no tickets, making a scene and demanding to get let in anyway.
I think the Japanese attitude, when you lose your ticket is, “well, I’m not going to go.” The foreign attitude is, “I’m going to go, and demand for someone to fix my problem for me!” So, yeah: protect that ticket like it’s cash.
People ask, “why can’t you reissue the ticket?” When you lose your cash, do you go to the bank and ask them to reissue you your cash? (The Sumo Association) makes one, and if it gets out in the wild, they don’t know what happened to it. They can’t make duplicates. Please protect your tickets.
After you get to the venue, the Sumo Association has made two requests of us, that we inform our customers of: the first request is that they do not enter or leave the seating area during a match. The second request is if you’ve ordered a lunch set, please do not ask the guys at the ticket gate about the lunch set and where to get it. Please go inside and ask the ushers. Those are the things the Sumo Association has asked us to tell people, and that is on our site.
What can you tell us about your non-basho ticketing services? Do you get a lot of demand for retirement ceremonies?
Generally, because our customers are not sumo fans, when they book their trip, they have no idea when sumo is on. Sumo is usually the last thing they research. They already have flights, they have hotels, they have an itinerary. Then they find out, “oh, there’s no sumo.”
So, we decided: “we can show you sumo!” We can get retirement ceremonies, and the rikishi super appreciate when we sell the retirement events. We’ve made some good friends that way. The jungyo in October and April especially are the big ones. Since the Kyokai has started increasing the number of (dates) – they used to be only in smaller towns, now they’ve started putting them in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka – we’re able to offer a lot more opportunities to see sumo to our customers.
One of the things we’ve regretted is that there just aren’t enough sumo dates in the year! Our business would be a lot bigger and more profitable if sumo was more often. We appreciate that there are other events we can offer to people.
I went to Jungyo for the first time a year and a half ago, during the April tour. It was a completely different experience. I wonder, for a first time viewer who is not familiar, how they would walk away seeing sumo for the first time there, versus seeing it at Kokugikan which is such a different experience.
You can get closer. Usually you can get some photos with the wrestlers. Disclaimer: wrestlers are all human and they get to decide if you get a photo with them or not! It’s the only opportunity you’ll get to have where you can sit ringside. Years ago, we could sell ringside tickets in Fukuoka and Nagoya. They are often available for jungyo, especially if you’re fast and early.
Do a lot of sumo fans know that you offer services for other sports and take advantage of that, to purchase other tickets (e.g. baseball)? What other sports do you offer?
I wouldn’t say it’s a lot of people who request non-sumo events but we definitely offer that. We do whatever people ask us to get, as long as the process to buy the tickets is okay. We’ve done baseball, soccer, we’re big into pro wrestling now. That’s our next biggest business after sumo.
People ask us to get anime festivals, and weird things that I’ve never even heard of! We do concerts, as long as they’re on sale. We don’t take orders for concerts if they’re not on sale yet, and that’s because they often have a fan club lottery and another lottery, and then a presale for credit card holders and then another lottery… by the time it opens there’s just nothing there. I think I did 9 concerts in a row where I got nothing. If the concert is on (general) sale and there are tickets there, we’ll help.
How do stable visits work if people order this service through you? A lot of people ask us about that.
The biggest problem we have with stable visits is that we don’t get enough of them! We don’t just show up uninvited, we have to arrange a date with the stable in advance. They’re getting very busy these days. They’ve told us that the demand amongst Japanese people to go see keiko has also skyrocketed, not just the foreign tourists. It’s really hard to get dates now, so a lot of them have had to close their doors except by appointment only.
We have to get an appointment, and compete with the stable’s own fan club. Another problem is we often don’t get notice. We try to get dates as far in advance as we can. When we do that, we send you the meeting time and place and we take you out, we show you the practise, we always give you a souvenir of some kind, and commentary.
One thing I want people to know about us is that we support the stables. When you go on a tour with us, you are also supporting the stable. We’ve actually paid out more to the stables this year than we’ve taken out in revenue from stable tours. So, we’re actually operating in the red on these tours, but I like doing them. I like giving something back and helping the people who have been (good) to us. Stables can’t take cash directly, but they can accept support in-kind. We send boxes full of 20kg of meat to a stable, or we’re members of their fan club and go to their parties, and give money to their rikishi when they’re retiring. There are lots of little ways that we can support a stable.
I want people to know that sumo is not just two fat guys in diapers bouncing off each other! A guy emailed us last week asking for information and I replied to him, and he wrote back, “Tokyo is much too exciting a city to sit inside watching two fat guys bouncing off each other.” What! Give it a chance. It’s what I did years ago, I gave it a chance, and here I am.