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A television guide for NHK, a Japanese station, features David Ortiz as well as Daisuke Matsuzaka on its cover.
A television guide for NHK, a Japanese station, features David Ortiz as well as Daisuke Matsuzaka on its cover.

Making Sox-Yanks hit home in Japan

MLB markets the rivalry, not just players, in bid to grow overseas

TOKYO -- In the days leading up to this week's inaugural Red Sox-Yankees matchup for the 2007 season, four major Japanese newspapers will run promotions from Major League Baseball asking readers to pick a side.

Boston or New York? Matsuzaka or Matsui? Monster or Godzilla?

Now that each of the combatants in baseball's most-storied rivalry features a Japanese superstar, the effort has begun to fuel the Sox-Yankees feud across the world in besuboru-crazy Japan.

Major League Baseball, which has the licensing rights to the teams outside the United States, is looking to capitalize on the cult of the Olde Towne Team in the Land of the Rising Sun, after the Sox spent $103.1 million to nab pitcher Daisuke "Dice-K" Matsuzaka last year.

League executives believe exporting the hottest rivalry in baseball is critical to MLB's success in Japan by creating loyalty to teams, and not just individual players. The intense focus so far on Japanese stars in the major leagues has its limitations, most obvious when players are injured or retire and fans lose interest.

"Having Japanese players is great. But it creates a risk if we become too dependent on them," said Jim Small , managing director of Major League Baseball Japan. "So the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry is one way to get Japan to really get our brand."

Japan, the world's second-largest economy after the United States, is the league's biggest and fastest-growing international market. Since MLB opened an office in Tokyo several years ago, revenues have doubled to more than $100 million annually from sponsorships and other deals, according to industry estimates. It's a fraction of US revenues, but Japan is viewed as a gateway to large untapped Asian markets, such as China, where MLB is planning to introduce academies and school baseball programs .

The Japanese began playing baseball in the 1870s after a visiting American professor introduced the sport. Today, Japan is second only to the United States in the size of its baseball fan base: More than 20 million people attended games last year for the country's 12 professional teams, said Robert Whiting , who lives in Japan and wrote the book "The Samurai Way of Baseball."

But Japanese fans only recently began paying more attention to MLB games when Japanese players, such as superstar Ichiro Suzuki, proved they could more than hold their own against American competitors. Ichiro, as he's known in the United States, quickly established himself when he joined the Seattle Mariners in 2001, winning the Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards.

Following individual players, however, has its drawbacks. Fans are quick to switch allegiances to new teams when their favorite Japanese players are traded, or stop playing. NHK, a Japanese public broadcasting station, televised nearly every Yankees game for more than three years when Hideki Matsui was playing left field. But after he broke his wrist last year, the frequency of Yankee telecasts took a big nose-dive, according to Whiting.

Another reason MLB is latching onto Red Sox-Yankees fever: The Sox were the third-most recognized American baseball franchise in Japan last year, behind the Yankees and Mariners, according to the league's research conducted before Matsuzaka signed his lucrative deal. Boston's 2004 World Series win, after the Sox' improbable comeback to eliminate the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, certainly helped expand Red Sox nation, Small said.

MLB earlier this month opened its first store outside the United States in Tokyo, with a hearty display of competing Sox and Yankee wares. The team's baseball caps sit on opposing shelves, and even the MLB Mr. Potatohead "Sports Spuds" had a Yankee potato sitting atop two Sox spuds. Another two stores are planned in Japan, and the league is also considering opening a themed restaurant , Small said.

To further fuel the feud, MLB has also partnered with a chain of Toyota dealerships in Japan to host a sweepstakes with prizes including pieces of bases from the games the Sox and Yankees play this season at Fenway Park.

"The goal in five years from now is that if the Japanese players are gone, people still care about the Red Sox and the Yankees," Small said. "The Red Sox are so much more than Daisuke Matsuzaka."

If there is anyone in Japan that understands baseball rivalries, it's the fans of the Hanshin Tigers and the Yomiuri Giants. They are the country's own version of the Sox and Yankees: the underdog Tigers, with die-hard fans who despise the perennial winners, the Giants. As with the Sox and Yankees, there's an underlying tension between the team's cities -- Osaka for the Tigers and Tokyo for the Giants -- and between fans from both sides.

The rivals have fanatical cheering squads, organized groups that rally in the stands at games. At a recent match-up at the Tokyo Dome, leaders of the cheering squads stood like drum majors in marching bands, wearing white gloves and whistles around their necks, and directing the trumpets, drums, flag-wavers. As each player went to bat, the squads chanted a different song.

But while they are fiercely loyal, the cheering squads are courteous. There's rarely any heckling or booing at the games. Junko Nagakura , who donned Tiger earrings, Tiger print glasses, and a handmade black and yellow Tiger outfit, traveled hours from Osaka to Tokyo to cheer at a recent Saturday night game.

"Giants are like the Yankees -- they have so much money and always win," she said through a translator. "No one needs to root for them."

And in what should sound like music to the ears of MLB executives, Nagakura added: "I root for the Red Sox. They're the underdog like us."

But Major League Baseball still has a long way to go in getting Japanese fans to take sides in the Bronx-vs.-Boston rumble. At a baseball festival MLB sponsored earlier this month, Makoto Miyauchi , dressed in a Yankees sweatshirt and cap, walked with his friend, Michiko Kunugi , who donned another of Miyauchi's baseball outfits -- a Red Sox team jersey, pants, and team hat.

When he visits the United States this spring, Miyauchi, 45, said that he plans to attend two Yankees games and a Red Sox game, and he'll bring jerseys for both teams. He sees no problem with rooting for each of the rivals.

The Yankees are his favorite team, but the Red Sox, as they so often do in the standings, come in a close second. The reason?

"It's easier to get Yankees tickets," Miyauchi says.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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