Ice Network

Sun never sets on Japanese figure skating fans

Supporters go to jaw-dropping lengths to watch favorite athletes compete
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Wherever Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan goes, he is cheered on by throngs of fans from his home country -- like here at 2016 Skate Canada. -Getty Images

Icenetwork will announce its choice for 2016-17 Person of the Year later this month. Here's one of the nominations for that honor from icenetwork contributor Lynn Rutherford.

It's cold and drizzly at 4 a.m. outside the Hershey Centre in Mississauga, Ontario, the site of 2016 Skate Canada. Over-reliance on press room coffee, plus a dash of stress, means I seldom get more than four hours sleep at competitions. Plus, I figured if I got to the rink early, I just might beat a few of the countless Japanese photographers to a prized seat at the end of the press table, near the electrical outlets and LAN lines.

To my surprise, I'm not the first to arrive.

Thirty or so Japanese fans are queued up at the front entrance. Their hero, Yuzuru Hanyu, is set to practice nine hours from now. They've traveled 6,500 miles for a chance to see him up close, preferably from a front-row seat. Nothing, certainly not a little rain, will deter them.

"For my skaters who I love and I want to watch directly, I travel anywhere in the world," Hiroko, one of the more dedicated fans, wrote in an email. (Like others quoted in this article, she prefers to use only her first name.) Last season alone, she attended nine international competitions, six of them outside of Japan.

Hiroko is hardly unique. In an email, an organizer of the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki, Finland -- a 10- to 12-hour non-stop flight from Tokyo -- estimated 4,000 Japanese fans traveled to the event. Three-quarters of the spectators at the 2017 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships hailed from the island nation.

Some of these fans follow Hanyu even to his most minor international competitions. Two seasons ago, a modest rink in Barrie, Ontario, was nearly overwhelmed with spectators when the skater opened his season at the Autumn Classic International.

"I warned everyone in Barrie that the Japanese fans are coming," Brian Orser, who trains Hanyu in Toronto, said at the time. "Really, they're the ones who are keeping the sport going."

Orser may exaggerate a bit, but not much. At Helsinki's Hartwall Arena, stands selling cards and trinkets were patronized almost exclusively by Japanese fans. The only hotel within walking distance, Original Hotel Sokos Pasila, was booked solid more than two years in advance by a Japanese tour company.

"A group tour for worlds in Helsinki was sold at JPY 600,000 (about $5,300), including tickets and hotel, if you stay in a twin room with a friend," wrote Kazu, a fan and blogger. "If you go alone, [the tour] added JPY 150,000 ($1,350). And it's still difficult to win a place on this kind of group tour. More and more, fans arrange trips on their own so they can economize."

Many have no choice but to travel if they want to see Hanyu and fellow Japanese stars Mao Asada (who announced her retirement from the sport last month), Shoma Uno and Satoko Miyahara compete live. Tickets for the Japanese Figure Skating Championships, NHK Trophy and other international events -- even at the junior level -- are not only expensive but only available via lottery or on the second-hand market.

"It is very hard, especially the men's and ladies events," wrote Mizuho, one of more than 20 fans who responded to a Twitter inquiry. "Last year, I tried for tickets four times in the lottery for Japanese nationals, but I couldn't get them."

Depending on the cast, shows can be as popular as competitions, and some tickets -- which range up to $250-$300 dollars for a good seat -- are also solid via lottery.

"If Hanyu is in a show, it's sold out," said Akiko Tamura, a prominent figure skating journalist. "If Mao is in a show, it's pretty much sold out."

CIC Inc., the producers of Japan's Fantasy on Ice tour, created Ice Crystals, a club for Japanese skating fans. Members gain first entry to ticket lotteries, and re-sale of tickets is strictly prohibited. But even then, there are no guarantees.

"It's the only fan club [affiliated with] the Japanese Skating Federation, and (it) offers pre-sales, and there is a limit to the number of members now," wrote Sakura, a member of Ice Crystals. "Thanks to that, I can get competition tickets in Japan, although sometimes I lose (the lotteries)."

Fortunately, the sport is televised. Japanese broadcasters, including Fuji Television, are the biggest contributors to the ISU's bottom line, picking up the slack from the U.S. networks that were the dominant revenue generators some 15 years ago. Every other year, TV Asahi sponsors the World Team Trophy, where $1 million in prize money -- more than any other ISU event -- is awarded.

While world championships held outside the U.S. may draw a small handful of U.S. journalists, news agencies, sports magazines and outlets from every major city in Japan converge at Hanyu's competitions.

The picture is clear: Figure skating is popular in Japan. Very, very popular.

Tamura, the author of five books on the topic, traces the sport's growth from 1989 world champion Midori Ito's competitive days through 1994 world champion Yuka Sato to two-time world champion Miki Ando, who combined sex appeal with athletic ability and was popular with male and female fans alike.

"Miki did a quad jump (at the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final), and that was a big thing," Tamura said. "She reached outside of skating (and into the mainstream).

"Each skater -- [Takeshi] Honda, [Fumie] Suguri, [Yoshie] Onda, [Yukari] Nakano, [Yukina] Ōta -- added baby steps to get [the sport] more recognized. Then, with [Daisuke] Takahashi and Mao, it really grew."

The sport's popularity really blossomed during the 2005-06 season.

"Mao was too young for the (2006) Olympics, and that was a huge story in Japan," Tamura said. "Then, Shizuka Arakawa won gold in Torino, and that was Japan's only medal, and it was in the last event (of the Olympics). It changed the way people thought of the sport."

Takahashi -- who won five Japanese championships, the 2010 world title and the 2010 Olympic bronze medal -- fueled the phenomenon. But when Hanyu, with his angelic looks and daredevil style, won gold in Sochi in 2014, the craze intensified.

"In Japan, we have had many great skaters," Tamura said. "Hanyu is a great skater and also a great competitor."

The 22-year-old from Sendai is also a boon to publishers. A recent trip to Books Kinokuniya in midtown Manhattan found 19 figure skating "mooks" -- a combination of a book and a magazine -- on display. All of them featured Hanyu on the cover. His coach, Orser, has authored two strong-selling books on training Hanyu, based on interviews with a Japanese journalist.

"Some publishers just use Hanyu's popularity, and the books are not worth buying," Kazu wrote. "Brian's books are really worth reading. I check almost all the Yuzuru news in English, French and Japanese to introduce what is worth reading or buying to my blog readers, and I get 10,000 to 20,000 visitors a day."

Fans' enthusiasm is by no means limited to Japanese skaters. Many bring flags from different countries to events, to cheer on their international favorites. Two-time Russian world champion Evgenia Medvedeva's love of anime -- she performed her World Team Trophy exhibition as the character Sailor Moon -- has especially endeared her to fans: In Helsinki, she received eight suitcases of gifts, many from the popular TV series Yuri on Ice.

"They make each skater feel so special, so loved," 2015 U.S. champion Jason Brown said. "When they talk to you, it's almost like they really know you. They know your programs, and they're excited to see you skate with the knowledge of what (elements) are coming up."

"The majority of fan mail, I'd say 95 percent, comes from Japanese fans," said David Baden, vice president of winter sports for WME/IMG and agent to Javier Fernández, Adam Rippon, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford, and others. "They send birthday cards, and not just regular cards -- elaborate designs, origami with small gifts inside, like T-shirts and food items."

Not surprisingly, invitations to perform in Japanese tours like Fantasy on Ice, Stars on Ice and Asada's THE ICE are highly prized.

"Every event in Japan is sold out," Brown said. "It's really special skating there. Every time, it's a new, incredible experience."

"Skaters are over the moon when they perform in Japan," Baden said. "They love to skate to full houses, in front of educated fans."

Although Baden wouldn't talk specific amounts, the Japanese tours pay well.

"Promoters know the audiences will be very big, most likely sellouts, and most shows have TV deals," he said. "The Japanese market positively offers skaters compensation in line with what promoters are bringing in, in terms of ticket sales and sponsorships."

Foreign favorites abound, but Hanyu still dominates among uber-fans. As this article went to press, the reigning world champion announced his performance schedule for Fantasy on Ice. All stops sold out in short order.

"Before Yuzuru, I was just watching skating on TV for fun," Kazu wrote. "He completely changed my life, and my way of seeing skating."

Kazu believes Hanyu's roots in Sendai, a region hit hard by an earthquake and tsunami in 2011, have a big influence on the humble megastar.

"Fans are inspired by his never-give-up spirit," she said. "He sometimes visits (tsunami) victims to encourage them. He says the reason he wants to win every event is to appear in front of his supporters. Good results mean he will appear on TV and have the opportunity to say thank you to them."

Hanyu knows how to show his gratitude. After missing a quadruple salchow in his short program in Helsinki, he sat in fifth place, more than 10 points behind Fernández, the two-time world champion. But hearing his fans' cheers and seeing the front rows of Hartwall Arena awash with red-and-white flags helped him land four quads in an inspired free skate that set a new world scoring record and won him his second world title.

"I got really depressed after the short program," Hanyu told reporters afterward. "But the voices of the fans really gave me lots of power, and I thank them very much."