Yu Darvish opens doors to Japan
Rangers get opportunities to cash in on new pitcher's popularity in his homeland
ARLINGTON, Texas -- When Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish makes his first appearance on a bullpen mound on the back fields at Surprise Recreation Campus less than a month from now, don't be surprised to find a company name on a sign tied to the fence behind him.
With close to 100 Japanese media members expected to attend, including at least six major network television stations from Japan filming Darvish's every move at spring training, the Texas Rangers are likely to sell advertising space. It's just one of the ways the club can cash in off the field from Darvish's celebrity on it.
It's a chance for North American companies to advertise to the Japanese market or for Japanese companies to take advantage of the opportunity to increase exposure in the United States and back home, knowing the sign will be shown as Darvish throws.
"We signed Yu because it makes us better as a team on the field," said Joe Januszewski, Rangers executive VP of business partnerships and development. "But it does give us an opportunity to extend our brand and explore some advertising opportunities we might not otherwise have."
The Rangers have total financial control over some of those opportunities (and there could be ways to cash in that have yet to be developed), but other revenue streams that follow Darvish from Japan will have to be shared.
Signage is one of the things the Rangers control. And it's not just spring training, either. The club has limited inventory at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington and will explore the possibility of having Japanese companies sponsor a sign with Darvish's starts likely to get plenty of air time in Japan.
The Seattle Mariners and New York Yankees have both done this. The Mariners have established a solid bond with the Japanese fan base for a decade now, thanks in large part to Ichiro Suzuki. When the Yankees signed Hideki Matsui prior to the 2003 season, they had a few companies buy signage knowing it would be seen by potential customers in Japan.
Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Limited and a sports business consultant who has worked with the Yankees on developing their brand in China, said the club would need to get creative on the days Darvish starts.
"They could sell rotational signage behind home plate and sell specific slots for only the games he pitches," Ganis said. "You can tailor that for Japanese companies or American companies that want to market in Japan. That's a way of taking advantage of games being broadcast."
Ganis noted that when Matsui joined the Yankees, certain companies purchased signage in right field, because that's where Matsui played. A similar tactic with Darvish, Ganis said, could be to try to find certain camera angles used on the pitcher and sell signage in the stands or around the field that would appear when those angles were shown on the broadcast.
"With a pitcher, it's far more challenging and you need to be creative," Ganis said.
No matter what, just having Darvish on the mound in broadcasts shown in Japan will increase the Rangers' presence there.
"We'd love to be the team of Japan," Januszewski said. "We'd love to see fans in Japan wearing Rangers hats and jerseys."
The Rangers, though, won't get the full benefit of fans slipping on a Darvish No. 11 jersey in Tokyo. The organization doesn't reap all the rewards of a televised Darvish start in Japan, either. Merchandise sales overseas and international broadcasts are negotiated by Major League Baseball, and the proceeds are spread across the league and all 30 teams. (The Rangers don't have to share proceeds from Darvish gear sold at the stadium and their shops around the region.)
The only way for the Rangers to keep the majority of profits from a jersey that isn't sold in stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is if they open their own stores in Japan, something Januszewski doesn't see as a possibility because of the cost.
"But there is a value to having the Rangers brand in Japan," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior VP for international business operations. "You'll have fans in Japan pulling for Texas and some of them growing up Rangers fans."
Besides the possibility that more companies decide to invest via advertising or even ticket sales dollars, fans might be tempted to fly to Arlington to see some games.
American Airlines has two nonstop flights per day from Tokyo's Narita International Airport to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (one arrives in the morning, the other in the afternoon). Darvish flew in on one of those flights for his introductory news conference last week. Other airlines fly from Japan into DFW, but they have stops.
Jay Burress, president and CEO of the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization has reached out to travel planners in Japan and hopes to host some of them in Arlington for the first homestand in an effort to help plan trips to the area for baseball fans in Japan.
"We have not done a lot of international travel shows from Arlington, where Dallas and Fort Worth normally would, but due to the Yu effect, we've added an international trade show and we'll look at those travel packages," Burress said.
"We're so excited. You look at the second home series of the year, and it's against Seattle. Can you imagine Yu Darvish facing Ichiro to start the game? That would be a huge thing for a visitor to come see. But we'll see if that even happens."
Burress noted that his office has conducted plenty of interviews with TV crews from Japan and he hopes to increase awareness of the city with fans in Japan.
"I'm going to guess most people in Japan don't know where Arlington is, and this gives us an opportunity to let them know," Burress said. "Having Yu here is a great growth opportunity for Arlington."
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What complicates travel package planning -- and the sponsorship packages -- is that Darvish is not an everyday player. For Japanese fans who want to see Ichiro, for example, they can pick out any home date and know that, barring injury, they are likely to see the Japanese star (never mind that Seattle is closer, too). For those fans to see Darvish and book well in advance, they'll have to map out the schedule and plan on a longer stay to be sure to get in a Darvish start during a homestand.
"It would be more beneficial from a pure sponsorship standpoint to have a position player just because you pretty much know when he's going to play if he's not injured," Januszewski said. "A healthy pitcher will have 25 to 35 starts. You don't know how many of those are at home, but you could assume about 50 percent. That's where it gets tougher."
But for those Japanese companies with hubs in North Texas, the lure of Darvish could increase group sales. It's still a challenge to book those in advance, not knowing for sure when Darvish pitches. But it's easier for a local group to look ahead in the schedule to plan a date and then stay flexible if needed.
"We'd like to make inroads to Japan and other countries and expand our brand worldwide," Januszewski said. "We've now got the benefit of being able to talk about a Japanese star playing for us."
Richard Durrett covers the Rangers for ESPNDallas.com.