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COVID-19 pandemic leads to boost in stay-at-home betting on motorboat races in Japan

This photo shows a motorboat race held at Boat Race Amagasaki in Hyogo Prefecture in June 2020. (Photo courtesy of the Amagasaki Municipal Government)

AMAGASAKI, Hyogo -- There has been a surge in betting on motorboat races in Japan as more people stay at home amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

    Sales of pari-mutuel tickets for motorboat races held by the Amagasaki Municipal Government in fiscal 2020, which ends in March this year, are expected to reach 46.3 billion yen (about $440 million) -- up 8.9 billion yen (about $84 million) from the previous fiscal year. The municipal government has decided to put 2 billion yen (about $19 million) from this revenue into a public finance adjustment reserve fund, which is spent on countermeasures against the novel coronavirus, as part of its February supplementary budget.

    A municipal government official said, "While people have fewer opportunities to go to pachinko parlors and other places than before due to the novel coronavirus, a growing number of patrons are probably using their phones to bet on races from home."

    The sum of pari-mutuel ticket sales at the 24 boat race stadiums nationwide is expected to surpass 2 trillion yen (about $19 billion) for the first time since the "economic bubble" of the 1980s. Many people tied to the sport are surprised by this unexpected success.

    Sales from motorboat races at the Boat Race Amagasaki stadium had hovered between 20 billion (about $190 million) and 40 billion yen (about $380 million) since fiscal 2010. The rise in fiscal 2020 is mainly attributed to Teleboat sales, through which people can buy pari-mutuel tickets online using smartphones or other devices, which is expected to grow by 10.4 billion yen (about $98.5 million) from the previous fiscal year to 20.7 billion yen (about $196 million). Overall betting income on boat races in Japan is expected to top 40 billion yen for the first time in 11 years even though sales of pari-mutuel tickets at race venues and other locations has decreased.

    "Under the state of emergency last spring, we held races with no spectators, forcing sales to drop," said an official at the Amagasaki Municipal Government's Boat Race department. "Though there has been a V-shaped recovery thanks to the Teleboat system, we hadn't expected that sales would grow this much."

    The city usually puts profits from motorboat races into the city's account after the amount is finalized by deducting payouts and expenses from sales. Profits for fiscal 2020 are expected to be 2.5 billion yen (about $24 million), and the city intends to put the money into a reserve fund as soon as it can and utilize the money to battle the coronavirus.

    The sum of betting sales at all 24 boat race stadiums nationwide this fiscal year reached some 1.7 trillion yen (about $16 billion) as of the end of January, already surpassing sales in fiscal 2019 at 1.543 trillion yen (about $15 billion), according to the Motorboating Association, an organization of motorboat racing operators. Among the 1.7 trillion yen, phone betting income accounts for 1.3 trillion yen (about $12 billion) -- around a 70% increase from the same period the previous year.

    "Overall sales in fiscal 2020 are expected to top 2 trillion yen," said an official at the association. "This figure is second only to a peak of 2.2 trillion yen (about $21 billion) in fiscal 1991."

    (Japanese original by Kiyomasa Nakamura, Hanshin Bureau)

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