|Monday, May 13
Updated: May 12, 11:29 PM ET
Land of the rising revenue stream
By Darren Rovell
Ichiro Suzuki wears a Seattle Mariners uniform, but the Mariners are not the only team reaping the benefits that have followed the popular Japanese outfielder to the United States.
Thanks to the influx of Asian players who have left their homeland to test their skills in Major League Baseball, the league suddenly has a new source of revenue with an international unit now expected to generate some $80 million this year. That's revenue that will be spread among each team in the league, virtual manna from heaven for small-market teams which claim to be in desperate need of a cash infusion.
"We feel that its best for baseball to be represented by one central division to structure all the international contracts, rather than having 30 individual teams go into the marketplace," said Paul Archey, senior vice president of baseball's international business operations.
What once generated less than $10 million in revenue when it was founded in 1989, Major League Baseball International, which is responsible for negotiating broadcast rights, sponsorships, licensing agreements and merchandising deals outside the U.S., is quickly becoming a cash cow for the league. And it is no coincidence that this sudden surge of revenue has welled up just as Asian players are becoming more and more commonplace at major-league stadiums.
Only a few years ago, baseball fans in Japan once could watch 50 major-league games over the course of a season. Now, with 11 Japanese players on the rosters of seven major-league teams, Japanese viewers can catch about 350 games a season. With three Japanese players on their roster this season, all 81 of the Mariners' home games are broadcast on high definition television in Japan.
"Most games are on at 10 in the morning and I'm at work, so I tape the games and watch them when I get home," said Toshiaki Hasegawa, a 29-year-old medical products salesman who lives in Kobe, Japan. He recently traveled to New York to catch the Mariners during their only road trip to Yankee Stadium this season.
Dentsu, the Japanese television rightsholder, is in the fourth year of its five-year contract with MLBI. Dentsu distributes the games to be broadcast on NHK, Fuji Television and the Tokyo Broadcasting Station. Games also can be purchased on pay-per-view.
The 2001 World Series was viewed by more than 100 million people in 224 countries and territories around the world. Korea and Japan viewers made up about 47 million of that total, and with 21 million viewers, TV audiences in Japan increased by 301 percent from the 2000 World Series. That's despite the fact that Kim was the only Asian player on either of the Diamondbacks or Yankees' rosters.
In Japan, the Mariners' popularity led to Major League Baseball sponsorships with seven companies, including Kirin Beer and MasterCard. Companies such as Nikko Cordial Securities, Mizuno and Pepsi have used Suzuki in their advertising campaigns. Four more Japanese companies figure to be on board by season's end, Archey said.
But not all revenue generated from Asian sources is shared among all 30 MLB teams.
The Mariners have four Japanese companies with an advertising presence at Safeco Field. Given the team's international TV exposure, the signs are meant to target both American and Japanese audiences. Nintendo, whose president Hiroshi Yamauchi is the team's majority investor, has rotational signage in Kanji (Japanese script) behind home plate. Video game publisher Konami, food company Ajinomoto and car-maker Nissan are the others.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org