Discussions could begin in July

Japanese Govt. exploring betting liberalization to boost sports industry

Japan's industry minister Koichi Hagiuda.
Reading time 2:37 min

The Japanese government is mulling over lifting restrictions on sports betting, according to local media. The Japan News reports that the Economy, Tade and Industry Ministry has drafted a proposal that would permit this form of wagering, a move seemingly aimed at increasing revenues from broadcasting and advertising in an effort to boost the sports industry.

While the proposal would imply a major shift for the Japanese gaming industry -the only nation in the Group of Seven with a broad ban on sports gambling in place-, odds are it may not happen overnight. At a press conference on Tuesday, industry minister Koichi Hagiuda said “no moves” were in place to realize such a proposal immediately, further claims the cited source.

Japanese news sources point out the proposal is set to face strong opposition, as parties against the flexibilization argue sports betting would lead to match-fixing and a raise in cases of gambling addiction. Gaming that is not publicly certified is prohibited in the nation, and while betting on horse racing, track cycling and sports lotteries are permitted under special laws, sporting events wagering at large is not allowed.

The Japan News report points out that, as early as July, the industry ministry and the Japanese Sports Agency will reconvene the Sports Development Council for the first time in five years. The lifting of sports betting restrictions is expected to be discussed at the meeting.

The move would be in line with the council’s goal, set in 2016, to expand the size of the Japanese sports market from ¥5.5 trillion ($41 billion) in 2015 to ¥15 trillion ($111.9 billion) in 2025. It would also put Japan in line with many other advanced economies in the world where sports betting is popular, including several European countries and many US jurisdictions.

We’ll resume discussions, taking into account changes in the structure of the global sports industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic and digitalization, but when to start the discussions and what to discuss is not yet decided,” Hagiuda said, as per The Japan News.

Additionally, the move is believed to also tackle massive outflows of wealth resulting from betting on foreign markets. Japanese sports, too, have become targets of wagering, and some industry reports estimate that revenues from foreign gambling on these events are worth about ¥5 trillion-¥6 trillion ($37.3 billion to $44.7 billion) annually.

Baseball, one of the country's most popular sport

Plans on where to direct revenue resulting from gambling include the promotion of local sports and covering the costs of club activities at public junior high schools. But such proposals are likely to face objections, including those already raised in Japanese pro baseball, which has grown into a popular national sport by dealing with illegal practices and campaigning to eliminate organized crime.

The rules of the Professional Baseball Agreement do not only ban match-fixing but also specifically prohibit gambling, and the league has also distanced itself from the Japan Sports Council-operated Toto sports lottery. When in 2015 a non-partisan association of lawmakers proposed including this sport in the lottery, the baseball industry did not back the move.

The opposition of Japan’s 12 professional baseball teams was again reinstated in a 2018 owners’ meeting. This makes for a contrasting picture with pro soccer, where Toto is well established, and the potential of legalized betting is being discussed as part of the sport’s growth strategy.

In fact, reports dating back to 2021 indicated the Japanese pro football league could potentially open up to wagering as soon as 2024, a market some reports position at about $65 billion. Still, much remains to be seen, especially given Japan’s generally conservative approach to gambling at large. 

While the country has hinted at flexibilization in some areas, these efforts have been ambiguous thus far. These include the launch of a casino race, of which most major cities have now dropped, with only Nagasaki and Osaka still seeking a license - with opposition growing in both cases.

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