|Thursday, April 24
Marketing 'Godzilla' in Gotham
By Darren Rovell
The chill in the air and the booming roar coming from Yankee Stadium gave off all the signs of October. But the cool weather was just another sign that it wasn't yet time for spring and the sound was Hideki Matsui's first big moment in pinstripes.
Through the first three weeks of the season, Matsui's stats aren't quite on track to match his last season with Tokyo's Yomiuri Giants, when the three-time Central League MVP dubbed "Godzilla" hit a career-high 50 home runs, knocked in 107 runs and maintained a .334 batting average to boot. He's hit only two dingers so far this season, though his 20 RBI are among the league's best. But even if he doesn't immediately live up to the three-year, $21 million contract he signed in December, Matsui could have his biggest year yet off the base path.
In Japan, Matsui endorsed products that included a cookie, a vitamin drink and ice cream, plus had an equipment deal with Mizuno. Since coming to the U.S., he's already locked into a memorabilia deal with Upper Deck, will continue his work promoting Japan Air Lines and Mizuno, is the cover athlete on a Japanese baseball video game and there are plenty of companies in virtually every sponsorship category -- from carmakers to beverage makers -- lighting up his agent's phone lines. And Matsui stands to make more money now that he is in the U.S. His Japanese team filtered all his endorsement deals and typically took a 30 percent cut -- significantly more than the standard 15 to 20 percent negotiating fee that is customary in this country.
"He obviously has a very established reputation and we've been talking to many companies, but there's definitely no rush to grab deals right away," said Rob Urbach, executive vice president of SFX Sports, which represents Matsui.
Matsui jerseys are selling extremely well, though reports of sales of his memorabilia are mixed.
John Sepenuk, managing director of Asia Pacific for Upper Deck, says some might think the products are pricey, but there are plenty of orders for Matsui-signed baseballs ($549.99), Yankees hats ($599.99), batting helmets ($649.99) and home plates ($799.99). Matsui has even been asked to sign his full name for Upper Deck and sign only his initials at the ballpark to keep scarcity in check.
Some think it's too early to tell if Matsui's nationwide popularity already has matched that of Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners outfielder who won the American League Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Players awards in 2001. Gary Engel, a Japanese sports cards dealer who has made more than $20,000 selling Japanese Ichiro items, says he still has 80 percent of his Matsui collection -- all of which he is willing to sell -- because the Yankees' rookie "hasn't had that breakout game yet."
Still, he's well-known enough to be part of a marketing plan in Canada. On March 30, the Toronto Blue Jays ran an advertisement in the Toronto Star that had Japanese writing. Its translation: "Let's boo Hideki Matsui."
Matsui doesn't speak much English, but lack of fluency hasn't discouraged companies from using Ichiro or Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets' center from China, in advertisements. That's been a recent change from the former attitude that a language barrier creates distance between athlete and consumer.
"I think interpreters to some extent, at least in the beginning, give companies a comfort factor," said Jeff Chown, managing director of The Marketing Arm's Talent Link, which brokered a recent endorsement deal between Yao and Apple Computer. Chown said he believes interpreters, who can mute the tone of an athlete's comments, help minimize the risk of damaging the athlete and the brand he aligns himself with.
Creative scriptwriting has helped the most marketable Asian athletes, including Yao, whose misunderstanding of American slang is parodied in a recent Visa commercial. He gets by on facial expressions alone while pared with Verne Troyer, who played Mini-Me in the "Austin Powers" triology, in the Apple ad. Matsui shouldn't have any problem with stage presence, as he's been followed by plenty of journalists and TV cameras over the years and he has already appeared on "Live with Regis and Kelly" and "Late Night with David Letterman."
Despite the fact that Ichiro is currently pitching products for six companies, he has turned down more than $30 million in potential marketing alliances over the past two years, according to his agent Tony Attanasio.
Ichiro has deals in the United States with Upper Deck (memorabilia), Oakley (sunglasses) and Mizuno (signature bats and gloves). His deals in Japan include Pepsi, financial services firm Nikko Cordial and Sato Pharmaceutical, which makes a health drink called Yunkel that Ichiro is said to drink everyday. In the coming months, Ichiro is expected to sign a deal with Starbucks, which became the exclusive coffee of the Mariners this season and has a sign behind him in right field at Safeco Field. At least 300 of the more than 6,000 worldwide Starbucks locations are in Japan.
"How marketable a player is is sometimes the desire of the player himself," Attanasio said. "You could have the greatest marketing plan in the world, but if the athlete is not very interested in endorsing products or services, it doesn't matter." Attanasio said Ichiro will not endorse a product or service he is not interested in, nor will he endorse a product that his fans wouldn't expect him to use.
A worldwide marketing plan is the reality for stars like Matsui and Yao. Yao's appeal is unquestionably tied to China's enormous population. While the population of Japan is approximately 126 million and the United States is home to about 290 million people, China's population is 1.3 billion.
"It's not just about the number of people," Sanders said. "In order to be marketable, you have to have extraordinary, highlight-reel-type talent, success on the court, integrity and charisma -- and I think Yao's had that."
Though he came off as stiff and uncomfortable during his initial workout in Chicago for NBA scouts and media, Yao since has emerged as a darling of sorts, knowing enough English to drop jokes here and there.
Other U.S.-only deals Yao has signed this year include Upper Deck, which is running his official Web site, www.yaoming.net, and Gatorade. China-only endorsement deals include telecommunications company China Unicom and video game publisher Sorrent, which will debut a Yao Ming cell phone video game in China next month.
"We thought that his presence here would mean mostly more opportunities in China, but he's getting plenty of offers from U.S. companies," Sanders said.
Urbach said relationships in Japan will continue. Mizuno just began a television campaign around a Matsui line of products that will launch next month exclusively in Japan.
"Just because he came here, doesn't mean his popularity in Japan has diminished at all," said Jeff Fiorini, vice president and general manager of Mizuno USA.
"The investment value in Hideki Matsui for companies will be significant because he has played for the best team in Japan and now he's playing for the best team in the United States," Urbach said.
In order for Matsui's value to stay high among companies in Japan, SFX and Major League Baseball International have to do a good job monitoring illegal marketing campaigns. Companies in Japan have been known to use the likeness of Japanese players with their MLB team logos on their products without consent. The illegal practice has slowed down since Hideo Nomo became the first Japanese player to play in the majors in more than 30 years, said Jean Afterman, the Yankees' vice president who represented Nomo with agent Don Nomura before she took the job with the team. "We spent a tremendous amount of time sending cease-and-desist letters," Afterman said.
"Companies in Japan are more clear about what they can't do now, which definitely helps," said Kota Ishijima, manager of U.S. & Latin American Operations for the Yomiuri Giants, who is helping monitor the situation.
At least in this country, given what is expected of Matsui on the heels of the performance of Ichiro, the question is: How many home runs does he have to hit to keep the phones ringing?
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.