The Japan News by The Yomiuri Shimbun

Home > Opinion > Sports



Hakone Relay Race as a Business: College Sports with Success

Hirotaka Matsuoka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University

In 2011, everybody was enthusiastically talking about Nadeshiko Japan, and the year is coming to a close. But the New Year holiday season is packed with events that college sportsfans look forward to as well. The national championship for college American football in Japan will be decided at the Koshien Bowl (December 18), and the college champion then goes on to play the champion of the corporate league in the Rice Bowl. The national college rugby football championship tournament begins at the end of the year and runs through the semifinals on January 2 to the final on January 8. And the most special of them all-Tokyo-Hakone Round-Trip College Ekiden Race known as the Hakone Ekiden-will be held on January 2 and 3.

College sports as a business

College sports in Japan pale in comparison with college sports in the US in terms of scale and popularity. College sports governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) constitute fully-fledged business, with more than 20,000 fans attending basketball games, over 100,000 for American football games, and most of these games are televised. The only college sport in Japan that is not outdone by these sports in the US is the Hakone Ekiden. More than a million spectators pack the roads along the route of the race over the two days, and the viewer ratings are impressive as well, at some 30%. Even college sports in the US don't stack up to these figures.

What established the Hakone Ekiden as a business is television broadcasting and sponsorships. NTV has delivered a live broadcast of the race nationwide since 1987, and it is because most people are interested in the race that it is televised. Sponsors, in turn, invest in the race because they are looking for the business opportunities afforded by such high viewer ratings. As a result, these sponsors are able to introduce the names of their companies and products to a greater number of consumers. The compensation for these benefits covers the operating costs of the Hakone Ekiden. Although it is an extremely simple plan for sports business success, the key is in having a lot of spectators.

Why do they watch the Hakone Ekiden?

Why do people watch the Hakone Ekiden?

In sport marketing studies in which watching sports is referred to as sport consumption, clarifying why they watch constitutes a very interesting research subject.

First of all, there is the enjoyment that is common in watching any kind of sports-the element of watching an event with an unknown outcome. This sense of drama is a special characteristic of sports, which is remarkable compared with other forms of entertainment-the stories and outcomes of movies and plays are to some extent predictable. The performers, at least, know the outcome while they are performing. In sports, on the other hand, even the competitors themselves do not know what the results will be as they engage in competition. Needless to say, the television producer in charge of televising the content of the Hakone Ekiden does not know the outcome either. This is the tough part of sports business, but for the spectator, there is no content that is more interesting. While spectators consider that this year, XX University is really good, and YY is the runner to watch, it is fun for them to watch how events unfold-whether the race goes just as they thought it would, or there are unexpected developments.

College identity

Many people support a particular university as they watch-their own alma mater, the alma mater of a family member, and the like. When people watch runners from the university they are supporting win the race, place among the top finishers, or earn the right to be seeded, they feel as if they themselves have succeeded and get a sense of accomplishment. Viewers can indulge in a sense of pride and elevated self-image, even though they are lounging and laying under a kotatsu (low covered table with a heat source). This is truly a selfish conceit, but it is something that we humans often do, not only using sports teams and athletes but also other successful people in this way.

The college identity (identification with the university) lies in this background, as people identify their favorite university with themselves and feel euphoric through the race. With the sense of along with my team, spectators and viewers feel mood swings from joy to despair over the more than eleven hours of the race, continuing over the two days. Those who have a strong sense of this identity not only enjoy the sweet taste of victory along with the team, but also the bitter taste of defeat. And they support the team through all the highs and lows. These are the kinds of fans that are supporting each of the universities participating in the Hakone Ekiden.

New Year's traditions

We Japanese like to do certain things on certain days during certain periods. In April we enjoy cherry blossom viewing parties, on the Midsummer Day of the Ox we eat eel, in summer we enjoy fireworks and high school baseball, in September we enjoy moon-viewing parties and dango (sweet dumpling), and in December we have many end of the year parties. And when you think of the New Year's holidays, the Hakone Ekiden comes to mind-this may be the ultimate reason that we watch the Hakone Ekiden.

The Hakone Ekiden has become a New Year's tradition, and this is a great strength. I would hope that the period for holding this race will not be changed no matter what happens. Watching the Hakone Ekiden while enjoying osechi New Year's dishes and raising a glass has become a New Year's staple for many Japanese.

By the way, has everyone visit in the five-leg mountain climbing course in Hakone? The ascent that I had seen on television is a steeper slope than I had imagined, so it is hard to fathom the runners who keep on running up it. Feeling a hill that made my car rev so much that I felt sorry for it gave me a new perspective of a king of the mountain※, and I gained one more point of anticipation for watching the Hakone Ekiden.

※ A strong runner in the demanding, steep fifth leg of the first day at the annual Tokyo - Hakone Collegiate Ekiden is admiringly dubbed a "king of the mountain."

Hirotaka Matsuoka
Associate Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University


Born in Kyoto in 1970. Graduated from Kyoto University of Education.
Completed the Doctoral Course at The Ohio State University (Ph.D. in Sport Management).
Currently Associate Professor, Faculty of Sport Sciences, Waseda University.

Area of Specializations: Sport Management, Sport Marketing.
Serves as a Steering Committee member of the Japanese Association for Sport Management,a member of the Board of Directors of the Japanese Society of Management for Physical Education and Sports,
an Executive Committee member of the Asian Association for Sport Management,
and a member of Public Relations and Sports Information Committee of the Japan Sports Association.

His publications include Sport Marketing (Taishukan, 2008, co-author),
Illustrative Sport Management [Zukai Sport Management] (Taishukan, 2005, co-author),
and Understanding the Sports Industry [Sports Sangyo Ron] (Kyorin Shoin, 2011, co-author).