MLB enjoys Asian boom

NEW YORK, Reuters

Baseball business is booming in Asia as a rapidly-swelling band of fans follow the exploits of home-grown players on the other side of the Pacific.

Major League Baseball as a product has become a hot commodity in Asia this year due in part to the explosive start of Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki at the Seattle Mariners and the intriguing rookie year of compatriot Tsuyoshi Shinjo with the New York Mets.

Major League Baseball (MLB) is scoring record television ratings in the world’s number two media market of Japan and licensed goods such as Ichiro jerseys and Mets hats are flying off the shelves in Tokyo.

South Korean interest in the sport is booming too.

Korean pitcher Chan Ho Park of the Dodgers is on track to be the National League’s comeback player of the year and his resurgence comes at a time when the South Korean economy has picked up a little steam.

“We are experiencing explosive growth in our merchandising business in both Korea and Japan,” said Timothy Brosnan, executive vice president for MLB in charge of international marketing.

Japan is the number one overseas market for MLB and this year’s signing of its first Japanese position players, Ichiro and Shinjo, ignited a firestorm of interest in the sport as news outlets sent hundreds of reporters to the United States to cover the exploits of the pair.

According to Japanese television ratings agency Video Research, Japanese pro baseball is posting its lowest ratings in 10 years while MLB games have picked up viewers and more air time.

Brosnan said this had been a breakout year for baseball in Asia but the watershed year was Japanese pitcher Hideo Nomo’s rookie season with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1995 when he landed a spot as a starter in the All-Star game and helped to bring interest back to the game after a strike.

“What Nomo did and what the other pitchers have done is expose the Japanese fans to some of our bigger club brands,” Brosnan said.

The increased exposure led to big-name team such as the Atlanta Braves, New York Yankees and Chicago Cubs developing a following in Asia and paved the way for big names such as Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire to become celebrities across the Pacific.

Thanks to Ichiro and relief sensation Kazuhiro Sasaki, all the Mariners games are broadcast live in Japan, while other teams with Japanese players on their rosters — the Mets, Red Sox, Montreal Expos, Kansas City Royals and Anaheim Angles — are also getting major TV exposure.

MLB is in the third year of a five-year, US$75 million deal with a consortium of Japanese networks to broadcast games. It is MLB’s largest monetary deal for overseas broadcasting rights.

The deal may turn out to be a bargain for the Japanese consortium given the billion-dollar-plus price being paid for broadcasting rights for baseball in North America and the increasing popularity of MLB games.

MLB does not release the monetary amount of licensed goods sold overseas but it said over the past two years sales had picked up by 45 percent in Japan and 35 percent in South Korea in terms of value. Sales of Mariners goods have increased by 70 percent over the past year in Japan.

Numerous travel companies in Japan have introduced baseball package tours to the United States which include a trip to the ballpark, with Mariners packages being the most popular.

MLB expects to keep the growth going in Asia. There are more Asian players signing with clubs and Brosnan said that as more overseas players made it to the Majors the game would get greater exposure in their countries of origin.

“People want to root for the hometown guy. They want to root for the guy or gal from their tribe,” Brosnan said. “For lack of a better phrase, our focus has been presenting the hero to the tribe members.”

One new twist for this season is that the MLB has distributed more than 12 million All-Star Game Ballots to the Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela as part of its efforts to reach out to the overseas fans.

In Taiwan, baseball has made inroads and should expand its presence with some of the country’s top young talent signing contracts with Major League clubs.

In China, MLB has conducted grass-roots campaigns to promote the sport and coaches will head to the country this year to help train local coaches and develop talent.

Baseball’s longest overseas exposure has been in Latin America, where it has thrived for decades.

Brosnan said that baseball did not expect the World Series to develop into a qualifying contest that would see the Major League champions playing the champions from baseball’s other professional leagues in places such as Japan and Korea.

But there would come a day when the best players from each country would form a national squad that would play in a baseball world cup.

“The best competition that we could stage is a world cup. That is the tournament that everyone wants to see. That will be the event that blows the doors off the international expansion of baseball,” he said.