Betting on bike racing: Keirin culture in Japan

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From the photographer: Keirin is a form of cycle racing developed in Japan around 1948 for gambling purposes and has since become extremely popular. It is one of only four sports that patrons are allowed to bet on. In 1957 the Japanese Keirin Association was founded establishing a uniform system for the sport.

Today riders must complete study at the Japan Keirin School. For riders accepted to the school, they take on an extremely strict, 15-hour, six day-a-week training schedule, before being eligible to graduate as approved professional Keirin riders able to compete in Japan’s professional Keirin league. There are over 3,000 registered riders in Japan, and salaries for top riders can bring in as much as $2 million U.S., with average riders bringing about $100,000.

Despite its popularity, Keirin racing has seen a steady decline since the 1990s with attendance and revenue declining consistently. With Japan’s aging population and Keirin seen mainly as a gambling activity, its fan base is made up primarily of punters over the age of 50. Attracting young fans is a crucial step to reinvigorating the sport. However the lack of interest from young Japanese in sports betting and the popularity of baseball and football, attracting younger spectators is an up hill battle.

The JKA has taken steps to attract younger fans, In 2012 women’s racing was reintroduced under the name, Girl’s Keirin and promoted with a national TV advertising campaign showing riders in high heels and dresses as an attempt to attract younger viewers. With the current debate in Japan over the introduction of casinos and the popularity of Pachinko slot gambling with the younger generation, Keirin racing could see yet another decline.