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Dice-K fever triggers tourist boom in Beantown

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One spring evening at Fenway Park, Koji Sakae rose to his feet in a wave of Red Sox euphoria, joining a packed stadium in a standing ovation for his hero, Daisuke Matsuzaka.

News photoMatsuzaka Merchandise has been flying off the shelves of sporting goods shops throughout New England since the pitcher signed with the Red Sox during the offseason.
AP PHOTO

Dice-K finished strong for a 7-1 win over the Detroit Tigers on May 14 in a masterful pitching performance.

The price for such magic moments of American culture?

Sakae, an Osaka resident currently studying in California, paid $320 for the ticket off the Internet, plus premium airfare and accommodation prices for his hurriedly arranged trip.

A bargain, says the delighted customer for the peak experience of his time in the United States. “Maybe in my entire life,” he adds in giddy laughter.

Matsuzaka’s performance midway into his major league debut season has been up and down. Through Thursday, he was 13-8 with a 3.70 ERA in 151 innings, striking out 152 and walking 52. One can say it’s been as spotty as the Japanese economic recovery, and his Red Sox compatriot Hideki Okajima, a southpaw reliever, beat him for a coveted spot on the American League All-Star squad last month.

But Boston still reigns in the American League, and there’s no stopping the deluge of Japanese fans making their way to Fenway Park.

“Ticket prices over $500 for a Matsuzaka game are not uncommon,” says Seisuke Orikasa, general manager of Japan Travel Bureau’s New York office, “especially when Japanese tourists and business people are trying to fit it in (at the) last minute. We do our best to secure tickets and protect our customers from price-gouging, but even at these prices, we’re not hearing many complaints.”

At season’s beginning, high-end projections saw an increase of 20,000 Japanese visitors to the Boston area, bringing upwards of $50 million to $60 million into the local economy through tourism alone.

Those estimates are now looking conservative. Incentive and business-related demand are way up. The 50-plus Japanese journalists now spending substantial portions of the season in Boston, and expected to rise exponentially, should the Red Sox remain World Series contenders in the pennant stretch, are but another factor in the elastic equation.

Simply put, Matsuzaka has single-handedly hurled Boston on to the Japanese national consciousness. For all its history and beauty, the city has lacked the one “must-see locale” worth a detour for the Japanese, and without benefit of non-stop flights from Tokyo, it has struggled to tap into the voracious Japanese appetite for foreign travel.

“Boston has consistently lagged behind Washington D.C. for side trips out of NYC,” says Orikasa, “but now Fenway Park has become the new pilgrimage site for thousands, even if they can’t catch a game.”

Overnight, Matsuzaka has reversed a long decline in business, tourist and student numbers from Japan, and lifted the Boston brand to new heights.

It’s what Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino describes as a “beautiful reciprocity,” a love affair between Boston and Japan, which started virtually the moment hints of a possible signing began to surface.

“The Japanese are clamoring to learn more about us, and we, about them,” Lucchino continues. “It’s what one writer has called the union of two great nations.”

That’s Japan and the great Red Sox Nation. And that passion, shared with Japan, is now translating into what some have called the biggest economic catalyst since the Boston Tea Party.

It’s not just about increased ticket and merchandise sales for the Red Sox. For starters, Fenway Park is already perennially sold out, and high prices on the Internet would hardly affect their bottom line.

Money generated from Dice-K T-shirts and TV rights go into a major league pool, so hefty revenues from the millions of Japanese fans up at 3 a.m. to watch Red Sox games live are controlled by MLB International and divided among all 30 teams.

But take just Lucchino’s oft-quoted “expanding the Red Sox footprint in Asia” as an example, and the enormity of Matsuzaka’s impact on the team, and Boston, begins to emerge.

Boston now enjoys the second-highest profile of any MLB team in global exposure behind the New York Yankees, making it a top draw for Asian talent, not to mention advertising revenue and new business opportunities. And the spillover effect of the frenetic coverage has made the Red Sox the darlings of Major League Baseball.

“That may be a slight exaggeration,” says Lucchino with a laugh, “but we’re happy to be leading the charge.”

Matsuzaka’s game results make headlines in Japan the morning after, ahead of domestic and international TV news on many days, prompting even the finance minister to lament the state of news coverage in Japan. Exposure like that can’t be bought, and Boston needs to harness it.

That is just what Pat Moscaritolo, the president of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, is trying to orchestrate.

“We’re learning a lot from the experiences of Seattle and New York, which saw significant boosts in tourism with the arrivals of Ichiro (Suzuki) and Hideki Matsui,” Moscaritolo says.

Favorite Japanese destinations such as Honolulu and Las Vegas have also provided illuminating case studies of how to win tourist hearts.

“Boston has always held enormous appeal for the Japanese: beautiful city, history, great restaurants. Matsuzaka has provided us with the ideal marketing platform we’ve been looking for,” says Peter Grilli, head of the Boston branch of the Japan Society.

It’s a steep learning curve, and JTB’s Orikasa advises Boston to be proactive.

“Matsui’s debut in New York generated incredible publicity and increased tourist numbers dramatically, but Japanese traveling to New York primarily to see baseball is already down to around 8,000 this year,” Orikasa says.

On top of Boston’s wish list would be a non-stop air route to Japan. Currently, passengers must fly via New York, Chicago or other hubs, adding five or six more hours to an already arduous 12-hour journey.

Wasted revenue opportunities loom particularly large for tourism, as the retail-driven Japanese travelers inevitably spend the bulk of their famously gargantuan shopping budget on high-end brands and duty-free items at their last port.

Here’s the fantasy scenario to seal the union of the aforementioned two great nations:

Dice-K leads Boston to the next World Series, then hops on the inaugural non-stop flight to Tokyo for next season’s rumored major league opener . . . and wins . . . naturally.

Recent published reports, however, have stated Boston players have indicated reluctance to make the long journey to Japan at the outset of the season.

That said, the enduring myth of his gyro ball notwithstanding, for now, a patient Boston seems content to take a long-term view of Matsuzaka’s pitching contributions to the city.

Just beneath the stats, though, and all the hype around the Dice-K-tinis and souvenirs with strange Japlish slogans in obsolete Chinese fonts, lies the essence of the momentous shift Matsuzaka has triggered.

This tale of two nations has the look and feel of a happy, alchemic match. The $103 million Red Sox paid for Matsuzaka could yet turn out to be the best investment Boston ever made.