Hiroshi Tanahashi, New Japan Pro Wrestling's top star and 2011 winner of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Wrestler Of The Year fan award. Photo via upload.wikimedia.org.
Last week was a major game changer for the Japanese wrestling industry. The owners of Japan's largest wrestling company New Japan Pro Wrestling (NJPW), Yuke's, the developers of THQ's WWE videogames for over a decade, shockingly sold the promotion for just over $6.5 million to Bushiroad Group Publishing, a successful card game company based in Tokyo.
The timing of the sale was interesting, as Bushiroad had enquired about buying NJPW over the summer after sponsoring their G-1 Climax tournament, but their offer was not taken up at the time. New Japan's business hadn't significantly deteriorated over that period, so the sale was likely caused by THQ's uncertain future. THQ was recently delisted on the NASDAQ stock exchange after their share prices crashed below $1 in December with no signs of a resurgence since then. There's a very good chance that THQ could go bankrupt, which would put Yuke's future into question too. Moreover, though Yuke's had cut NJPW's money bleeding under its ownership since late 2005, it still wasn't a profitable venture for them, so they had to cut their losses while the going was good.
The chairman of Bushiroad, Takaaki Kidani, reminds me somewhat of TNA's Dixie Carter and ROH's Joe Koff, that is, he could prove to be yet another naive money mark who has bitten off more than he can chew. He's a big pro wrestling fan, but has negligible experience within the pro wrestling or MMA business, past running a moderately successful one-off independent show at Korakuen Hall last May and their sponsorship of wrestling companies and MMA fighters like Yuichiro Nagashima. In an ominous sign for the future, Kidani even appeared on his Bushiroad Pro Wrestling event as Danshoku Kidani, likely a takeoff on Danshoku Dino, a cult indy wrestler who does a very over the top gay gimmick.
Most worryingly, Kidani spoke of his ambition for New Japan to eventually overtake WWE as the number one wrestling company in the world, a ridiculous goal given that NJPW only grossed $14.4 million last year, roughly 3% of what WWE earned. Hopefully, this is just some red meat for the Japanese press to eat up, because it is not a realistic target, even with the ideas of international expansion and increased merchandising. Without television in foreign markets they would be hard pressed to break even on overseas tours. Indeed, New Japan's first ever American house shows last year in Rahway, NJ, Brooklyn, NY, and Philadelphia, PA, drew less than 1,800 fans combined, which probably wasn't nearly enough to cover the expenses of the tour. Similarly, there's unlikely to be big money in heavier merchandising of the New Japan name and wrestlers, given their very limited exposure on network television in Japan, a thirty minute show on NTV in the graveyard slot of 2am on a Saturday night.