Decision made due to public protest

Pubcaster NHK has axed its live coverage of the Nagoya Grand Sumo Tournament, which begins on Sunday, due to public outrage over 65 wrestlers’ connection to an illegal baseball betting syndicate with links to the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.

NHK will instead offer nightly digests of bouts and commercial networks have no plans to pick up the slack.

Sumo coach Otake and Kotomitsuki, an ozeki, the second-highest rank in sumo’s carefully graded grappling hierarchy, have been fired for their part in the betting circle and banned from the sport for life.

Musashigawa, head of the Japan Sumo Assn., the sport’s governing body, has been implicated in the scandal and has temporarily turned over the org’s reigns to Hiroyoshi Murayama, a former head of the Tokyo High Prosecutor’s Office.

NHK, which began airing sumo matches in 1953 at the dawn of Japanese broadcasting, reported that 70% of the nearly 8,000 viewers who had phoned, emailed or written to express an opinion on the scandal called for a ban on sumo coverage.

Ratings of the centuries-old sport, which has Shinto religious associations and is patronized by Japan’s royal family, have been sliding for years.

Despite this, the JSA is notorious for hard-balling over rights negotiations.

A big reason for the sport’s declining popularity is a string of scandals: A young recruit was beaten to death by his wrestling seniors in 2007 and a trouble-prone yokozuna — holder of sumo’s highest rank — was fired for punching a man in a drunken altercation this year.

The latest scandal has prompted a wide-ranging probe into the gambling habits of wrestlers and coaches.

“We accept NHK’s decision,” Murayama told reporters on Tuesday. “We’ll do our utmost to stage the Nagoya tournament decently.”

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