Business / Corporate

Japanese sports merchandiser dreams of major league success in U.S.

by Jim Allen

Kyodo

Just like Japanese ballplayers, Takashi Matsuba dreams of competing at the highest level, taking his game to the United States and the major leagues.

Although Matsuba’s game is manufacturing memorabilia, souvenirs and other such goods for fans of Japanese sports teams, he says there is a strong parallel with his countrymen wanting to play in Major League Baseball.

“Japanese players want to go play in the MLB because it’s the biggest stage. For me, it’s the biggest market,” Matsuba, 47, said in a recent phone interview.

In December, his company, Matsuba Entertainment Ltd., took steps toward that market by showcasing his wares at the 2017 Baseball Winter Meetings Trade Show in Florida.

With various businesses — including Japanese giants Fujitsu Ltd. and NTT Data Corp. — blanketing the huge hall with goods, services, software, ballpark tools and training equipment, Matsuba and his staff occupied a small space away from the entrance.

Matsuba’s featured product was a 14-cm 3-D caricature of New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka in the middle of his windup. If given a photo and two-dimensional caricature, Matsuba said his company can deliver a new unique product in 10 days from his manufacturer in China.

He is aware that regardless of what innovations he might bring, American competitors will quickly adapt and learn to produce similar goods. But he believes service is what counts.

“I have confidence I can do better than suppliers in the States, considering the way they do business,” Matsuba said. “They have some quality goods, for sure, but the service is no good.”

While young Japanese ballplayers now dream of playing in the majors, Matsuba, too, looked toward America while growing up. Gregarious and adventurous, he longed for the land of the musical “Grease” and Michael Jackson but did not make it until summer 1990. As a university sophomore, Matsuba spent that summer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his cousin had gone to study.

There, his cousin’s host family, the Mayers, helped him gain a foothold and became his biggest supporters. Admittedly a poor student, Matsuba enhanced his English by taping radio music programs and listening until he could memorize the banter between iconic Milwaukee DJs Bob Reitman and Gene Mueller.

The language he acquired proved valuable after he landed a job with J. League club Shimizu S-Pulse. As team secretary, Matsuba became close to two of the managers, Ossie Ardiles and his successor Steve Perryman. When Perryman left in 2001, so did Matsuba.

“I just quit,” he said. “I did nothing for six months. I went to England, met up with Steve and Ossie. They took me to (soccer) games in London and gave me a merchandise catalog the size of a coffee table book.”

“I had no interest in merchandising. I was thinking, ‘Why don’t you give me goods instead?’ I brought the catalog to S-Pulse and the guy said, ‘Why don’t you buy this stuff, and we’ll get it from you?’ There was no reason not to do that.”

His first products were English-style Japanese team scarves at a time when only towels were offered. At first he operated under his father’s company, before founding Matsuba Entertainment in 2005. He now supplies promotional products to 30 J. League teams and five clubs in Nippon Professional Baseball, although it’s been anything but a smooth and straight road to success.

Matsuba at first did not understand pricing. He would charge customers the prices they wanted to pay for a product, only for them to discover and complain afterwards that other teams were buying the same goods for less.

“I was always losing money. I didn’t know how to set prices,” he said. “I was doing business on the road, carrying my computer, a small printer and samples. I didn’t remember what prices I had quoted before.

“When customers found out the prices were different, some would say, ‘You cheated me!’ But I told them, ‘How did I cheat you? I gave you the price you wanted.’ ”

He listened and learned, however, getting priceless advice from his mother, Yoko, who manages the family business. By attending trade fairs around the globe to find suppliers of goods his customers asked him for, he expanded his product line.

After the 2015 Baseball Trade Show in Nashville, Tennessee, Matsuba decided to take part this winter. He came armed with a process for supplying caricature goods that one of NPB’s more innovative teams, the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, asked him to provide.

“I don’t come up with product ideas. My customers do,” Matsuba said of the goods the Eagles buy to give as promotional gifts to their growing fan base.

But even with an attractive and unique product in hand, his previous experience of the trade fair did not prepare Matsuba for the harsh challenge of crashing the American baseball market.

“I was really impressed in Nashville,” he said. “It was very interesting, but I was just visiting. This time was a completely different story, because as an exhibitor, I have to get business.”

Now after his first brush with the American market, Matsuba sounds like a Japanese ballplayer struggling at his first big league spring training.

“I see what the facts are. I came to get business, but it’s so hard to make contacts. It was harder than I thought, but I know my position now in the real world. Now I have to get a result.”

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