Whatever complaints or qualms people might have about opening the Major League Baseball season in Japan should have ended the minute the Oakland Athletics deplaned at Narita International Airport outside Tokyo on March 23. The Athletics, losers of 88 games last year, who have not had a winning season in five years and who finished last in the American League in attendance last season, were treated like rock stars. Flash bulbs popped and fans called out to the players by name. When Jerry Blevins is recognized walking through an airport in a suit, you know you have found one serious fan base.
The great American pastime has grown into an international sport. The success of the World Baseball Classic, which will expand this fall to qualifiers around the globe, and a growing network of foreign broadcast partners have demonstrated strong worldwide interest. To play two games in Japan out of 2,430 in the 2012 season is but a small recognition of MLB's reach.
Make no mistake: after the Athletics and Mariners play their official MLB games -- Wednesday (6:10 a.m. Eastern) and Thursday (5:10 a.m. Eastern) at the Tokyo Dome -- they will pay for their trip with jet lag, exhaustion and disruption of the usual rhythms of baseball. The six previous teams to open in Japan played losing baseball in their first 10 games back in North America (29-31), compared to .518 baseball after shaking the doldrums. What they gain for themselves, especially in the cultural realm, and for the sport far outweigh a few weeks of inconvenience.
The easy thing always is to do nothing. Let the Athletics play the Mariners two games in the O.com coliseum in front of 10,000 people each cold night and you tell me how that is so much better for the game. Sometimes you need to create some discomfort to reap rewards. And playing two games in Japan, given the importance of baseball's international flavor, borders on an obligation.
"I know it's tough on Seattle and Oakland," commissioner Bud Selig said, "but this is a very important part of growing the game. It's about China and Japan and Korea and Central America and Europe . . . My dream, and it will probably not happen until after my commissionership, is to one day have regular season games in Europe."
This fall WBC qualifiers will be held in Germany, Taipei and Panama City. "And you wouldn't believe how many letters I get asking about baseball in Israel," Selig said. Israel will send a team to a WBC qualifier in Jupiter, Fla., that also includes France, South Africa and Spain.
For sheer economic power, however, there is nothing like the interest in Japan. Yes, don't discount the economic element of these games. MLB sold a title sponsorship of the two games to Gloops, an odd-sounding Japanese company that develops applications for mobile phones, and happily handed Gloops the right to plaster its logo on batting helmets and a patch on Oakland's jerseys. (Boeing bought the space on Seattle's sleeves.) Such commercialism thankfully doesn't fly in North America, but is more the norm in Nippon Pro Baseball, so it's not entirely out of place.
(The players will be paid about $45,000 each for making the trip and the clubs will be paid approximately the same revenues they would have received if the series were held in Oakland. Fans paid anywhere from $20 for a standing room ticket to $254 for a seat behind home plate.)
Almost 70 percent of MLB's international revenues are derived from the Japanese market. Playing regular season games in Japan for a fifth time in the past 14 years has helped drive such interest. Last year MLB opened an official MLB of Japan online shop, and for years it has sold virtual signage to Japanese companies to insert into the MLB International broadcasts of All-Star, LCS and World Series games.
MLB's longest-running international broadcast partner is the Japanese company Dentsu, which sub-licenses major league programming to as many as six different Japanese networks. Dentsu began its partnership with MLB in 1999 under a five-year deal worth $65 million, continued with a six-year deal worth $235 million and in 2009 signed a six-year extension (through 2015) that has been reported to be worth about $475 million. MLB's 30 clubs share equally in the haul, as they do all international revenues.
Japan is, simply put, crazy about baseball. When Japan beat Cuba in the inaugural WBC, the end of the game drew an audience share of 56 percent, a percentage the World Series has not seen in the states since 1980. A game televised at 8:30 a.m. in Japan when Diasuke Matsuzaka of Boston pitched against Ichiro Suzuki of Seattle rated a 13.3 -- better than Game 3 of the World Series in prime time here last year. The 2003 World Series, featuring former NPB star Hideki Matsui with the Yankees, drew an audience of 12.5 million viewers -- compared to 20 million in the United States in prime time. Japan (about 127 million people) has less than half the population of the U.S. (311 million).
Thankfully, MLB understands that it is important to recognize such a devoted fan base with its genuine product, not some meaningless exhibition. Moreover, the games do have an altruistic subtext. MLB players and staffers have visited military installations as well as held youth clinics and offered support in the Tohuko region, which was devastated by the tsunami and earthquake of last year. The language of baseball is the common tongue.
Finally, it is fitting that Japanese fans get a chance to watch Suzuki, one of their most beloved stars, play in his homeland in a major league uniform for the first time. Japanese baseball fans have been watching Mariners games on television for years, and the opportunity to welcome him back as an active major leaguer is in itself worth the trip.
The downside of a disrupted routine is a small price to pay for the many benefits of showcasing MLB on a true international stage in front of loyal fans. When you think of MLB as a multi-national corporation with $7 billion in revenues, the idea of bringing your product to a top customer for two days makes all the sense in the world.