Japan – Is the Era of Free TV Broadcast for Mega Sport Events Completely Gone?

Era of Free TV Broadcast for Mega Sport Events

Mega sports events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are places where the world sees the results of athletes’ years of intense training and devotion. At the same time, it is also an enormous opportunity for licensing business where huge amounts of broadcasting rights fees are generated around the world.

Such a global exploitation business is practiced often in the film industry, namely Hollywood. It is interesting that NBC, the parent one of the Hollywood major studios, Universal Studios, has the exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the US. But also the Walt Disney Company owns a major sports channel, ESPN shows that the relationship between Hollywood and sports broadcasts are actually tighter than it looks.

There is no doubt that the US is the world’s leading market for sports entertainment, just like Hollywood is for movies, but since the 2010s, the movie business has undergone a major shift involving streaming platforms. But there was another market that might be experiencing the shift now in the Far East- Japan. 

The size of the Japanese sports entertainment market has not been widely recognized outside Asia, just like the country was considered a total underdog till they beat Germayn, then Spain in Qatar just a few weeks ago.

However, baseball has been popular in Japan for decades, and watching baseball games from their local professional league on TV as a family was a traditional image of Japanese families. And since the J-League, their football league, started in 1991, the Japanese sports entertainment market has grown rapidly. With high viewership ratings exceeding 30% for events like the Beijin Olympics like figure skating, and Tokyo Olympics men’s baseball final, it’s not an exaggeration that Japan is certainly one of the major sports entertainment markets with their 120 million population.

On the other hand, Japan is known as a relatively conservative market, and that it often takes longer for technological innovations to replace existing predecessors than in Europe and the United States. Regarding TV broadcasting, while international streamers such as Netflix and Amazon Prime did launch their local productions, Japanese terrestrial broadcasters still maintained a relatively strong presence in contrast to the rapid shift in Hollywood.

But it was a symbolic event that it was Abema, an online broadcast channel, who won the free live broadcasting rights for the Qatar World Cup, instead of any of the country’s five major broadcasters or public broadcaster (NHK). Abema has several different free channels, as well as paid on-demand services. It is reported that the licensing fee that Abema paid FIFA was as high as 20 billion JPY, but considering the heavy focus towards mobile devices amongst younger demographics in the market, online TV/streaming would be effective, as this success of Abema proved.

As more and more young people abandon TV, broadcasting of major sporting events in Japan is changing steadily and rapidly. On December 31st this year, a big MMA event RIZIN will be held in Tokyo. Previous years, the event was broadcast by Fuji TV, one of the major TV networks, but since the tournament in June 2022, it has been switched to exclusively online (PPV). Whether it will be a PPV or whether an online platform such as Abema will acquire the license, it is inevitable that the online will become the main platform for live broadcasting.

Of course, as of now not all sport events can be seen online, but what is interesting is that a certain segment of the population is using bookmakers to bet on sports as an alternative to online streamers. Some bookmakers accessible from Japan also have live streaming capabilities. Bookmakers that allow you to bet on the aforementioned RIZIN may also allow live streaming. Many of these bookmakers allow live streaming viewing simply by signing up or depositing, which can be actually less than the common monthly subscription fee of around 10-15 USD.

The World Baseball Classics and the Rugby World Cup, as well as other major sporting events involving Japan, will keep coming up in the near future. But right in the midst of the dynamic change of sport entertainment consumption, Japan is in the critical moment whether the traditional broadcasting system over terrestrial broadcasting becomes disrupted and online streaming will take over the sports entertainment market following the movies and series market.

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