Foreign legion

In America, it's a wide world of sports today as leagues push the borders, seeking fresh talent, markets and fans

May 11, 2007|By Childs Walker and Candus Thomson | Childs Walker and Candus Thomson,Sun Reporters

TOKYO — TOKYO-- --The Boston Red Sox shocked many American fans when they spent $103.1 million on Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka.

But walk down a street in this city of 12 million wearing a Sox cap and No. 18 jersey and it becomes apparent that the implications of the signing stretch far beyond the mound at Fenway Park.

The hat draws smiles, waves, bows, even an offer to buy it then and there.

"It is good that [Matsuzaka] was the one chosen to go to the United States," says Osato Nakamura, summing up the spirit of those in Japan. "He will be a hero there as well."

Suddenly, a simple red B stands as a symbol linking the sporting obsessions of two cultures. And that could translate to future wealth and success for the club that forged the connection.

American fans may question multimillion-dollar investments in international stars. But teams spend the money knowing they'll be rewarded with more than on-field brilliance.

By signing Matsuzaka, the Red Sox established a greater profile in their sport's hottest new talent market. By signing David Beckham to a $250 million package of salary and endorsements, the often overlooked Major League Soccer gained the implicit endorsement of one of the world's most famous people. By drafting Yao Ming, the Houston Rockets forged a flesh-and-blood link between the NBA and an exploding market of 1.3 billion potential basketball fans.

"If done properly, there's enormous upside in these deals," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant. "When you have players from countries like Japan, Taiwan, China, anywhere in Europe, there's such an ability to generate sponsorship and marketing deals in those countries."

Baseball stars Matsuzaka, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui rank as national heroes based on their major league exploits. Packs of Japanese reporters follow each star around the United States and even their most mundane achievements -- say a 1-for-4 night against Tampa Bay -- become front-page news. About 250 major league games appear on Japanese television each year. Even as American fans watched Matsuzaka take on the New York Yankees on Sunday night, millions of Japanese did the same Monday morning.

Television and merchandising revenues are divided evenly among baseball's 30 clubs. So the effects of Ichiro, Matsui and Matsuzaka benefit the entire league.

The immediate economic benefits to the Red Sox may be more limited. They already sell out every game and charge more per ticket than any team in the league. They spent $103.1 million ($51.1 million for his rights and a six-year, $52 million contract) on Matsuzaka primarily because they wanted an ace for the next six years.

"It was first, second and third a baseball decision designed to give us a better team and a better rotation," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said. "There are some ancillary benefits, but they are just that -- ancillary. The notion that there's some enormous pot of marketing gold is illusory."

The Red Sox can sell advertising space at Fenway Park to Japanese companies or to American companies targeting Japanese fans. When Matsuzaka faced Ichiro for the first time, the center-field wall featured a Dunkin' Donuts sign with a message scrawled in Japanese characters.

But Ganis said the economic benefits of owning Matsuzaka are "fractional."

"Those revenues offset the cost of a player's contract more than if he were from Alabama or the Dominican Republic," he said. "That said, the Red Sox paid so much upfront that he'll have to pitch well to make it a good deal. If he's not a top-of-the-rotation starter, they overpaid."

The greatest payoff may be abstract for now.

"I thought the purpose of the $51 million was not just to get Matsuzaka but to establish a public relations presence," said Robert Whiting, who has written several acclaimed books on Japanese baseball. "The Yankees and the [Seattle] Mariners had monopolized the attention here, but that $51 million was such a figure that it went through the country like an electric shock."

The next wave of Japanese stars will have Red Sox on the brain, he said, and if they're unwilling to sign anywhere but Boston or New York, other potential suitors may be scared away from bidding. Whiting speculated that unsigned Japanese amateurs may also be eager to try out for the Red Sox. So the investment could return talent beyond Matsuzaka's strong right arm.

Lucchino said he hopes that's the case.

"It's not something you can quantify very easily in dollars and cents," he said. "But we're looking at it as more of a long-term play. We hope to be the most popular major league team in Japan. We think there are benefits to that."

NBA hits its shot

The NBA has been even more aggressive than baseball in linking itself to overseas markets. Commissioner David Stern believed so strongly in the mission that he virtually gave away television rights in European and Asian markets so the league could broaden its presence.

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