- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 27, 2003

Baseball’s recent All-Star Game posted a better TV rating in Japan, where the game started at 9a.m., than in the United States. The numbers came as little surprise, because Japanese fans for several years have been more than willing to turn their personal schedules upside down to watch Major League Baseball games.

So last week’s news of MLB executives opening a permanent regional office in Tokyo prompts a simple question: What took them so long?

The Japan office, designed as a permanent presence to seal and expand baseball’s business presence in the Far East, on one level only plays catch-up to the other major sports leagues. The NFL opened a Japan office two years ago and again is playing a high-profile preseason game there next month. And the NBA, arguably the most global of the four major leagues, has offices all over the Far East with staffers working in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Tokyo.

But baseball’s recent effort also highlights a fast-growing seriousness about its Asian business interests. With MLB assured of labor peace through 2006 and commissioner Bud Selig now embracing a much looser style of management in which no new idea is too crazy for consideration, baseball is at last willing and able to take full economic opportunity of one of the sport’s true hotbeds.

Also last week, MLB Advanced Media, operators of MLB.com, licensed its Internet rights in Korea in a deal that will create a fully fledged, Korean-language version of MLB.com.

“It became clear we really needed to have an anchor, a true presence [in the Far East],” said Paul Archey, senior vice president of MLB International. “Our business over there has grown so fast and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. So it was time to have direct contact with our business partners there.”

Like many good ideas, MLB’s fascination with the Far East came from the ground up. Starting with Hideo Nomo in the mid-1990s and currently led by Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki, the ever-expanding wave of Asian players thriving in the U.S. gave fans in Japan, Korea and elsewhere a true reason to watch MLB games at all hours of the day.

Every indicator of Asian fandom seen since then — whether it be votes for the All-Star Game, TV ratings or merchandise sales — has been a direct result of that unprecedented show of success in America by Asian players. And in most cases, it leads to something that can be quickly capitalized on by baseball. MLB International as a whole now approaches $100million in annual revenue — nearly 10 times its showing in 1989 — and better yet, it’s money evenly spread among every MLB team.

That player-driven business model received another big boost Friday when pitcher Chin-hui Tsao of the Colorado Rockies became the first Taiwanese player to reach the big leagues.

Over the last several years, baseball relied on third-party businesses to help with much of its merchandising and licensing in the Far East. But no more.

“This is not an inexpensive proposition, given the cost of everything, including office space, in Japan,” Archey said. “And it does carry certain economic risks given vagaries of business cycles and so forth. But with the threat of a [players] strike over, this has become more of priority, and allows us to finally get in and really build and foster our relationships over there.”

The MLB Tokyo office will be led by Jim Small, a longtime baseball front-office executive who will have several primary functions. Among those are selling Asian-based sponsorships for baseball and integrating the those sponsorship contracts with a currently scattered collection of television and licensing deals.

Much more prominently, he will also help with ongoing negotiations to begin the 2004 regular season in Japan. MLB was set to begin this season with two games in the Tokyo Dome between Seattle and Oakland, but the series was moved back to the United States after the outbreak of war with Iraq.

Baseball is determined to get back to Japan with games, and a formal announcement of a finished deal for 2004 is expected soon, likely involving Matsui and the New York Yankees as one of the participating teams. Also in the works is a postseason All-Star tour of Japan following the 2004 season. A fall tour there would be the ninth such event in the last 17 years for baseball.

One situation the MLB Tokyo office, however, will not be handling is the Montreal Expos. The Far East is perhaps the only place that has not been the subject to wild, and to date unsubstantiated, rumors of where the Expos will play in 2004. The MLB-owned Expos are playing a quarter of their home schedule this season in Puerto Rico and likely will return there for at least part of next season.

“That’s an interesting situation. Our role with the Expos [in Puerto Rico] is one of operation and execution,” Archey said. “All other games that are played outside of the U.S. and Canada typically are led through [the MLB International] office. The Expos situation is much more than that, since it involves a single team and many more games. But no, we’re not leading that process.”

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