|Monday, May 13
Updated: May 12, 11:28 PM ET
Tailoring teams that sell to a diverse fan base
By Darren Rovell
He had seen the Japanese press hound Ichiro Suzuki, documenting his every move made both on and off the field, but it wasn't until the first road trip of the 2001 season that Mariners outfielder Mike Cameron realized the impact his teammate would have on the game.
"I had been playing in the league for seven years," Cameron said. "And I've never seen Japanese people in Texas before."
Indeed, even if all 17,120 people in Texas who checked "Japanese" under race on their Census 2000 questionnaire had attended the game, they could still form a minority in the 49,000-seat stadium. But with Suzuki and the influx of other Japanese position players on the field, Asian faces also became a familiar site in the stands of ballparks from Seattle and Los Angeles to Boston and New York.
In 1995, Hideo Nomo started the recent tsunami of Japanese players to the major leagues. He was followed by pitchers Hideki Irabu, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Masato Yoshii. But it wasn't until there was a successful everyday player like Suzuki that the impact was truly felt.
"People can come from Japan, buy tickets to a Mariners game and feel confident that they can see him," said Hasegawa, who this season became the third Japanese player on the Seattle Mariners, joining Suzuki and reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki. "They can come over from Japan and they may not see us and that's trouble. People don't want to travel all that way for nothing."
Although another Suzuki will be hard to find, the rewards of signing the next Asian wonder are hard to ignore. Thanks to last year's American League MVP and Rookie of the Year, the Mariners can expect to cash in on sales of tickets and merchandise to new-found Japanese-American baseball fans and thousands more Japanese nationals who make the trek to the United States.
"I am very happy that many people come from Japan to see the games in the United States," Suzuki said through a translator. "Even though baseball isn't the national pastime in Japan (Sumo wrestling is), maybe for the people that come over, it's their favorite pastime."
Two years ago, Mariners gear wasn't even among the top 15 best-selling MLB teams in Japan. Today, it has climbed to No. 1.
Mariners games are also a common sight on Japanese television networks. Five years ago, baseball fans in Japan had the chance to see two major league games a week. Today, with 11 Japanese players in the majors, a fan can watch about 13 games per week, including all Mariners home games. That, of course, has meant more money in the pockets of major-league team owners. Television remains a major component of the MLB's international revenue stream, which has increased eight fold, from $10 million to $80 million, since 1989.
With eight Japanese players on the rosters of major-league teams, the league distributed All-Star ballots in Japan for the first time last season. Some 850,000 ballots were cast from Japan, more than twice the 400,000 that made their way back from the Dominican Republic, home of 79 current major-leaguers. Boosted by hand ballots from Japan and online support worldwide, Suzuki's received a record 3,373,035 votes for last season's All-Star Game, the most ever by a rookie -- the most ever, period.
In a first for the MLB, the league will make this season's All-Star ballots available online in English, Japanese and Spanish.
The acquisition costs of a Japanese star are astronomical. But given the results, few can dispute the bargain the Mariners received for paying $27.1 million to bring Suzuki to Seattle. The Mariners paid the Orix Blue Wave $13.1 million to secure his rights, then signed Suzuki to a three-year, $14 million deal.
Although the league equally splits the international television rights revenue among its 30 teams, the high price for proven Asian talent seems to be economically justifiable in cities with a large Asian-American population. Suzuki, Sasaki and Hasegawa play for the Seattle Mariners, whose majority investor for the past 10 years has been Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi. Nomo and Ishii play for the Los Angeles Dodgers, whose manager, Jim Tracy, and pitching coach, Jim Colborn, spent part of their baseball careers in Japan.
A year ago, outfielder Tsuyoshi Shinjo was one of the most popular role players for the Mets. New York, Los Angeles/Anaheim and San Francisco/Oakland are the three U.S. metropolitan areas that are each home to more than 1 million Asians and Asian Americans, according to Census 2000 figures. Mets manager Bobby Valentine previously managed in Japan, which helped the Mets lure Yoshii, Nomo and now Satoru Komiyama to the team over the years.
Shinjo was traded to San Francisco in the offseason. The Giants, however, didn't need him to attract more fans to an already sold-out Pac Bell. But while Shinjo is struggling on the field with a .216 average and nine RBI, he is paying off for the team in merchandise sales. It's a bargain given that Shinjo will make just $1.35 million this year, but continues to attract fans to the team store as if he's Barry Bonds.
"Shinjo jerseys are very popular," said Connie Kullberg, vice president of retail and tours for the Giants. So, too, are Shinjo's distinctive, forearm-length wristbands, which were sold out the first week they arrived at the ballpark.
"They are a very gift-giving culture and they tend to outspend Americans by at least 3-to-1," Kullberg said. "Before Shinjo, we had a very small percentage of Japanese patrons. Now, on a non-game day, 50 to 60 percent of our shoppers are Japanese."
Given the financial returns, it's ironic that teams like the Mariners and the Dodgers -- who have three Japanese-born players each -- claim they sign players based strictly on their on-field potential.
"There's not pressure on us to get the next Asian star for marketing purposes," said Hide Sueyoshi, the Mariners' assistant director for professional scouting. "Our job is to get the best players in the world, whether that's in Japan, China, Korea, Australia or Russia."
Last year, the Mariners signed their first Russian player, pitcher Oleg Korneev, and made pitcher Wang Chao the first player from China to sign a U.S. baseball contract.
Acey Korhogi, the Dodgers' director of Asian operations who oversees a staff of seven, says his focus in recruiting the next star is based on talent.
"We scout strictly on ability," Korhogi said. "We look all over the world for anyone who is going to help us win."
In the meantime, they've brought back Nomo after a 3½-year absence.
"Nomo's return to Los Angeles this year means one thing: more bucks," said Michael Culross, sports editor of the Rafi Shimpo, the oldest Japanese language paper outside of Japan. "When he first came here there were sushi stands, and when he was traded they disappeared. Now that he's back, they're back again."
The Dodgers' current roster has three players from Venezuela, two from the Dominican Republic and two from Puerto Rico. And their next up-and-coming Asian star is already showing evidence of a possible financial windfall despite the fact he's in Triple-A.
The Las Vegas 51's have 24-year-old first baseman Chin-Fang Chen's jersey shirt displayed larger than the team logo on the front of its Web site. At $24.95, it is the team's best-selling item on the site, and about 95 percent of its orders have come from China or Taiwan. After the first printing sold out, people from China continued to order as much as 25 shirts at a time, according to team officials. And a current online vote on the team's site reveals that 50 percent of the more than 2,000 fans who voted would be willing to pay the team $25 to be able to download all of Chen's at-bats for the rest of the season.
"Talent is critical, but it would just be too coincidental for all these players to be on teams in areas of high Asian population," said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group, a sports consultancy firm based in California. "They might not be able to quantify the exact impact of signing a player of a specific ethnicity, but they know that it can have a major impact."
That's exactly what Major League Soccer set out to accomplish when the professional soccer league debuted in 10 cities in 1996. The league's founders believed that success of the teams would be contingent on placing international players in markets that mirrored their ethnic heritage. Since the league was a single entity, it could assign players to the "right" team. So a Polish player belonged in Chicago, to help draw fans from the city's large Polish community, and a player from Central America belonged in Washington, D.C., which has a large Latino community.
With its rosters swelling with foreign talent from Europe, Africa and Asia, the NBA has embraced its increasingly diverse fan base. Log onto NBA.com and the site can be navigated in English, Spanish and Japanese. The Dallas Mavericks, with Steve Nash from Canada, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany and Wang Zhi Zhi from China, offers portions of its team Web site in Spanish, German and Mandarin Chinese. Exploiting the marketing opportunities should become a growing necessity as teams pursue the next Asian superstars. The cost of luring the next Ichiro from Japan's professional league or Yao Ming from China's fledgling basketball league is expected to continue to climb.
Proven talent such as Hideki and Kazuo Matsui, two unrelated Japanese players that MLB teams are hoping will soon come to the United States, will have hefty buyout fees. Seeing the returns, both on and off the field, many teams are now hoping to catch the next Japanese phenom before the price gets too high.
"Before Hideo Nomo, I was the only one in the stands over there," Kohrogi said. "Now when I go over there, I see 10 to 12 representatives at high school games in Japan."
No Asian star has come close to duplicating the stir generated by Suzuki, arguably the game's most popular player after only one season.
Last year, the Mariners' team store at Safeco began selling "Ichiro" signed balls for a couple hundred dollars, but Japanese fans would buy 10 to 15 of them. In response, the Mariners raised the price to $500 a ball and then to $1,000. "But they still bought six or seven of the balls," Mariners spokesperson Rebecca Hale said. "Some bought 30 'Ichiro' T-shirts or 30 jerseys."
Concession sales also can be attributed to the new Japanese customers. While sushi was available at concession stands before Sasaki and Suzuki joined the team, the Mariners added more Asian food after their arrival. Now fans can choose from traditional fare like hamburgers and hotdogs, or specialties like the Ichiroll, a spicy tuna roll, and the "Daimajin," an eel roll coined for Sasaki's nickname.
Azumano International, the official licensed travel partner of the Mariners, will bring about 3,500 people from Japan to Seattle just to catch a game this season, up from 1,700 a year ago, said Azumano general manager Kiyoshi Nakamura.
The tour, which costs between $900 and $2,000 a person, includes a three- or four-day stay in Seattle, and one ticket to a Mariners game. This year, Nakamura estimates that $7 million will come to Seattle businesses from Japanese tourists, given that his company does 50 percent of the business and each tourist spends on average another $1,000 in Seattle.
And that's just Seattle. At cities across the country, native Japanese fly in to catch Suzuki on the road.
Toshiaki Hasegawa, a 29-year-old medical product salesman traveled from Kobe, Japan to New York to sightsee and catch the Mariners' only road trip to New York this past weekend. Also in the stands were Tokyo residents Kazuhiro Nakamura, his wife Naomi and Hiromichi Fukazawa, who planned a five-day trip to New York around the Mariners' schedule.
Suzuki's agent, Tony Attanasio, is aware of all the ticket sales and all the merchandise. Given the off-the-field impact of Suzuki alone, he has the most leverage of any agent in the business when it comes time to begin negotiations on a contract extension for Suzuki this offseason.
Attanasio said he will use the model created by Dick Moss, Valenzuela's agent.
"He created a quasi value by taking the attendance at various ballparks when Fernando pitched and when he did not and he had a formula where each fan was worth a certain amount of dollars. He won Fernando's arbitration case using that formula," Attanasio said.
"(Now) I talk to vendors all the time and I know how many shirts and things they are selling."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org