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Sox have Dice-K, but rivals reaping ad dollars

Japanese firms buy signs to reach game viewers back home

If you watched the Red Sox play the Texas Rangers earlier this month and couldn't read the Japanese-language ads behind home plate, don't worry. Those were meant for fans watching overseas, not you.

The Rangers are among several Major League Baseball teams capitalizing on the Sox's $103 million investment in Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka by selling ballpark advertising to Japanese companies. Those firms, which include a chain of men's day spas, are trying to get their message across to fans watching broadcasts of Major League Baseball games back in Japan. The Rangers and Kansas City Royals have already sold ad space worth hundreds of thousands of dollars inside their own stadiums, though neither team has a Japanese baseball star. Several other teams have also gotten inquiries from Japanese firms about advertising when the Red Sox are playing.

"Teams like the Kansas City Royals are benefiting from the Red Sox," said Sam Kennedy , Sox vice president of sales and marketing.

The Sox, though, won't see much new revenue from Japanese sponsors at Fenway Park because most of the advertising space was sold long ago to American companies. It's also far more expensive to advertise at Fenway compared to other baseball venues.

Kennedy said the Sox have talked with an advertising agency in Japan that represented several companies with ads at other American stadiums, "but they weren't willing to pay our rates to be here."

That doesn't mean you won't see Japanese-language ads at Fenway. Some American advertisers -- including Dunkin' Donuts and Lumber Liquidators -- have caught Dice-K fever and translated their signs into Japanese.

"We just thought this would be a cute way to do it," said a Dunkin' spokesman, Andrew Mastrangelo . The Canton chain does not even have any stores in Japan. Translated, the Dunkin' sign, which hangs over the right field bleachers, says "Welcome to Fenway."

But the premium space in baseball parks is behind home plate and that's where the Japanese companies want to book. Ads behind home plate are expensive because television cameras are constantly focused there as pitchers and batters duke it out.

Kennedy would not say how much the Sox charge, but advertising specialists said that an ad behind home plate at Fenway can cost as much as $300,000 for just a half inning. Those ads are displayed in rectangles cut into the wall behind the plate and change between innings.

At Rangers Ballpark in Arlington , where the Rangers play, a sign behind home plate costs between $120,000 and $160,000 per half inning, and that's if you buy a full season's worth of ads, said Alicia Nevins , the team's vice president of corporate sales.

Buying for just a few games, as did Dandy House Spa when the Sox played the Rangers April 6-8, costs more. Miura Co. , a Japanese water boiler manufacturer, is in discussions to advertise in the Rangers park, said Nevins.

Dandy House and electronics firm Casio bought a half-inning behind home plate at the Royals' Kauffman Stadium during each of the Sox's three games there in early April. Carl Keenan , a Royals account executive, said the spa's ads ran while Matsuzaka was on the mound. A half-inning behind Kauffman's home plate costs between $50,000 and $60,000 , he said.

The Seattle Mariners' Safeco Field is perhaps baseball's best example of a stadium that has drawn the interest of Japanese advertisers. The Mariners are owned by Hiroshi Yamauchi , founder of Japanese video game company Nintendo, play in a city with a significant Japanese population, and, in 2001, signed Japanese outfielder Ichiro Suzuki . Now, Safeco Field has eight Japanese advertisers, including some that have Japanese-language signage, a spokeswoman said.

Dandy House is an anomaly among baseball park advertisers not only because it is based in Japan, but because it peddles expensive manicures, facials, and massage treatments for men instead of financial services, fast food, or home improvement supplies like typical baseball advertisers. At the other end of the spectrum is Miura, which makes boilers for office buildings and other facilities.

Neither Miura nor Dandy House returned messages left at their offices in Japan.

Ian Condry , an associate professor of Japanese cultural studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the ads show a shift in that country's cultural power. Instead of idolizing American stars, as many Japanese have for decades, Japan is exporting sports heroes, and their own companies are finding ways to benefit from their popularity here.

"Now you have Japanese athletes being famous in America in the same way that the Americans have always been famous in Japan," Condry said. "It's a very interesting reversal."

Keith Reed can be reached at reed@globe.com.

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