With the sensational debut of Japanese outfielders Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners and Tsuyoshi Shinjo of the New York Mets, Major League Baseball is stealing the hearts of many Japanese.
While such hoopla may deal a serious blow to Japanese pro baseball by drawing audiences away, satellite broadcasting stations, travel agents and Major league goods shops are cashing in.
SKY Perfect Communications Inc., a major satellite broadcasting firm, said the number of subscribers to its channels that provide Major league games had by April 15 already doubled the total for all of last year. The firm declined to disclose the number, calling it a business secret.
“We have provided broadcasts of the Major leagues for some time now to meet the demand of big league fans in Japan,” said Daiji Inoue, SKY Perfect’s program spokesman. “The current popularity of Ichiro and Shinjo is making more Japanese fans feel a strong affinity with the Majors.”
NHK also got off to a good start on April 3 when its satellite channel relayed Ichiro’s debut game with Seattle.
Ever since, the broadcasts have attracted more Japanese viewers to the big leagues, according to an NHK spokesman.
“From (Boston Red Sox’s Hideo) Nomo’s no-hitter to Ichiro’s record hitting streak and Shinjo’s homers, their actions have brought about a synergistic effect,” he said.
The spokesman went on to say that 180 Major league games will be broadcast this season, and so far audience ratings are “way beyond our expectations.” He did not cite an exact figure.
Viewer ratings for home games of the Yomiuri Giants, a key indicator of the popularity of the 12-team Japanese pro-baseball leagues, hovered at only 17.4 percent last month, according to Video Research Ltd., a TV rating service. This figure was about 3 percent below an average year.
Turnout at domestic ball parks had also fallen.
The Central League attracted 2.3 million fans to the first 76 games this season — down 150,000 from last year.
The less-popular Pacific League has also failed to keep up with last year’s tally — 1.9 million for the first 88 games this season, against 2 million for 87 games last year.
The Pacific League’s slump continued despite efforts to boost media exposure by moving up openers a week ahead of the Central League and holding games on Mondays when Central League teams are off.
“So far, there’s been a poorer turnout of fans in the league as a whole,” admitted a Central League spokesman.
Asked whether the Major’s popularity has anything to do with the current decline at home, he said, “It’s too early to interpret things this way, but we do have a sense of crisis.”
Meanwhile, travel agents are jumping on the bandwagon of the Major league boom to organize a variety of package tours for fans to take in ball games on the other side of the Pacific.
Nippon Express Co. is organizing tours covering games in Seattle and New York from May to September, while Nippon Travel Agency Co. is promoting Seattle tours from both Kansai and Narita airports until September.
JTB Corp. has teamed up with the Mariners to give customers the complete game experience, including visits to the locker room and bullpen at the Mariners’ Safeco Field, in tours from May to September.
Tokyu Tourist Corp. is offering an additional tour to watch the Major’s All-Star game to be held in Seattle on July 10, expecting the Mariners’ Ichiro and pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki to take the field.
“Baseball tours have brought some value to Seattle, which otherwise would not stand as a tourist destination by itself,” said Eiko Sato, a public relations official at Kinki Nippon Tourist Co.
Kinki Nippon has sold out tours to Seattle on the Mariners’ opening games and other games to be held during Golden Week. The packages, which ranged from 148,000 yen to 198,000 yen, were a direct result of the media’s extensive coverage of Major league games, she added.
The travel agent has now launched six additional package tours for Mariners and Mets fans from June to July.
“More and more people are opting for tours with certain themes, featuring subjects such as sports and astronomical observations,” Sato explained. “And the Major league tours fit the changing trend.”
In Tokyo, Major league goods such as T-shirts are hits with fans, according to an employee of Major League Japan Shop, an MLB licensee, in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.
“Ichiro goods are hot, and Nomo T-shirts have gone out of stock since he threw a no-hitter. And we expect Shinjo goods to sell out soon,” he said.
“Japanese players are yearning for the power-vs.-power thing in the big leagues, rather than petty domestic baseball games full of bunts and intentional walks,” the official said. “And so are the Japanese baseball fans.
“Besides, we just find it sensational to see the Japanese players run all over other Major leaguers on the field there.”
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