Breaking the Colonel Curse

November 20, 2023

I often wonder if the inspiration behind Neil Young’s, ‘Only love can break your heart’, was about supporting his local sporting team.

As sporting nuts like me know, we’ll invest hours into days into months of our lifetime, just to sit through another loss that inexplicably breaks our heart. To quote the great Nick Hornby, falling in love with a team, you give no thought to the pain or disruption it would bring to you (so I guess I can bill my therapy to the Manly Sea Eagles then?).

But, what if it isn’t the manager's radical game plan or the new multi-million dollar signing that is causing your team's inability to do well? What if perhaps it is some mysterious curse held over your team that explains the failures, the misfortunes and the Neil Young sized heart breaks?

While sumo wrestling is still considered the national sport, baseball is surprisingly one of Japan’s most popular, with the American pastime in the land of the rising sun, the most watched sport through the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) which is Japan’s equivalent of the US Major League Baseball.

Most teams have had varied successful seasons in the NPB, but for one team, they had alluded to winning the title for 38 long years because of the ‘Curse of the Colonel’. 

Picture: Supplied by MLB

We first need to travel back to 1985, and the Osaka based Hanshin Tigers had just beat the Seibu Lions 4-2 in the Japan Series, their first title win in 21 years. So as you expect, the sake and the celebrations were flowing, as wild fans flooded the Osaka streets. In the heat of festivities, a statue of Colonel Sanders standing outside a nearby local KFC restaurant was thrown into the Dotonbori river. Little did they know that this hedonistic act of celebration would cost the team greatly, as after this heroic Japan Series win, the Hanshin Tigers would go backwards in quality. 

An 18-year long streak followed as they finished at the bottom of the league, struggling to achieve that success they had in 1985. Many fans began to attribute the Tigers misfortunes to the Colonel Curse, believing that the statue's disappearance was at the root cause of their championship woes.

Divers, treasure hunters, and even those wild Japanese TV shows, made attempts to retrieve the statue but were unsuccessful, further fueling the myth of the curse that the Tigers would never win another championship until the Colonel Sanders statue was returned.

The body of the statue was finally recovered in 2009, but the poor soaked Colonel was missing his glasses and left hand, with many believing only a complete recovery of the entire statue could lift the curse. The Colonel was finally cleaned up and returned back to the KFC with a new set of glasses and hand. 

Finally in 2023, you could smell anxiety in the Osaka air as the Hanshin Tigers finally reached the Japan Series final against the defending champions and local rivals, Orix Buffaloes. The Tigers finally came out victorious claiming their first title in 38 years. A fan dressed as Colonel Sanders dived into the Dotonbori river to celebrate, but to the relief of Tigers fans, was quickly pulled out to continue the celebrations in Osaka.

So what does this story about a Japanese Baseball team, the KFC Colonel and a losing streak have to do with anything? Myth-making and curses aren’t new to sports, if anything, they are perhaps the most common stories told from generation to generation. I think we’ve all experienced a relative recounting a long winded story how a certain player could’ve been the best in the world, but a mysterious chance of fate changed their whole trajectory.

A scroll through the very extensive Wikipedia article of ‘Sport-related curses’ will show how universal superstitions are and that possibly we’re not immune to them. Perhaps a reason they are able to continue to live on is that they comfort us, they provide us with some feeling of control in this ever unpredictable world. We retrieve examples from our memory to support them, so don’t worry, having a superstition isn’t dumb, it actually makes you more human. 

If we can learn anything from these sport superstitions, myths, curses, pick your poison, it is that they only strengthen the history of the brand, enriching their story. You can’t help but lean into the story of the Hanshin Tigers and their climb back to the top of the ladder. It is an example of a team with a deeply fascinating history that is not only the most resilient, but also, to the frustrated fan, the most patient. 

Just as the Hanshin Tigers couldn’t break the Colonel curse overnight, it is perhaps a kind reminder for brands not to freak out and try to retrieve the statue so to speak. Diving into the river of hasty decisions in a moment of crisis can have lasting negative consequences for your brand. So maybe we could all do with a Colonel Curse to teach us a thing or two about staying patient in the pursuit of success.

Words by Patrick Timms.