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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Money -- the toughest hurdle in sport

Companies help athletes to mix work and playing


Staff writer

Just as many professional athletes struggle to carve out a second career after they retire, amateur sports players are also confronting some really hard times.

With dwindling corporate support, amateurs nowadays must earn a living just like anybody else. This is especially true if they aren't playing popular sports, such as baseball, soccer and rugby -- forcing the cash-strapped to give up the dream of pursuing a sporting career.

Now, though, some companies are offering a helping hand.

On June 1, Pasona Sportsmate Inc., a 100-percent subsidiary of major staffing company Pasona Inc., began offering job placement and career counseling services for nonprofessional sports people.

Miyuki Yakuwa, president of Pasona Sportsmate, said she came up with the idea of the new company from her own experience as a competitive canoeist.

"Canoeing is such a minor sport," Yakuwa, who has competed in the National Athletic Meet, said. "Even canoeists who are good enough to train in Sydney in wintertime or compete in World Cups and Olympics cannot find sponsors, so they pay all of the expenses by themselves, or have friends help with fundraising ... I had always thought there is no social infrastructure to allow athletes to keep competing."

Pasona's move comes at a time when more and more athletes are finding themselves in the same boat as the canoeists; physically they can still compete, but lack of financial backing forces them to face up to life after sport earlier than expected. This is because an increasing number of Japanese businesses are disbanding their in-house sports teams, many of which date back to the 1950s. Experts say corporate sports teams served as a symbol of company solidarity as postwar-Japan rebuilt its economy, and then took on the PR value from the 1970s onward. But since the burst of the economic bubble in the early 1990s, many companies have been cutting back on sport activities.

From 1991 through April 2005, 294 companies across the nation have dissolved their sports teams, the latest being the disbandment in March of Seiko Instruments Inc.'s women's running team, according to the Sports Design Institute.

"I'm sure a lot of you are feeling more concerned about your future in these economic times," Yakuwa told a crowd of 50 or so who attended the firm's business manner workshop in late May. "But there have been few places you can ask for advice from."

As it stands, nonprofessional athletes looking for jobs have ended up in clerical positions at convenience stores and fast-foot eateries, as few other jobs allow them to set aside time for training and competitions.

Athletes with full-time jobs, on the other hand, have often felt guilty about not being able to work after their regular hours and on the weekends, Yakuwa said.

But athletes can do well at "haken" jobs, in which workers commit to certain working hours at various companies and receive pay for the amount of time they put in, she said.

Also, with haken jobs, athletes can get a taste of corporate life, and gradually build up their nonathletic skills while still actively engaged in sports, she added.

Seeking to address such needs, Human Holdings Co., which runs vocational programs for businesspeople as well as a staffing company under its wing, said it will engage in re-training for retired basket ballplayers as coaches and other professionals. Human is now hiring players for Osaka Evessa, which will be part of the new professional basketball league, the bj-league, that will debut in November.

"We are thinking of forming a career support center for players," said Mitsunori Uehara, president of Osaka Evessa. "Human offers a broad range of vocational programs, in areas such as art and design, business, medicine and so on. So if retired players want to get an education, they have a lot to choose from. We can also give them career counseling, as we have a staffing agency as well."

But the key to a successful transition to new careers lies in athletes themselves, Yakuwa said. "This is a 50-50 business deal," she said. "You need to think what you can give, then we'll think what we can give."



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