The scene, though merely hypothetical, still delights Paul Archey. He is Major League Baseball's vice president for international business operations, and he believes April 10, 2007, could be a momentous day for the sport.
Should Matsuzaka start the season as the Boston Red Sox's No. 3 starter, which is a distinct possibility, and should the Red Sox begin this year with a four-man rotation, as many teams do, he will pitch the home opener. And leading off for the Seattle Mariners will be Ichiro Suzuki, an even bigger star than Matsuzaka in their native Japan.
Never mind the 4:05 a.m. start time; it's no stretch to think half of the country's 127 million residents would watch that at-bat. And Archey? Well, he'll be counting down the days until April 20, when the Red Sox play host to the New York Yankees and Matsuzaka faces Hideki Matsui – Godzilla vs. Mothra, come to life.
Such scenarios tickle Archey, whose job has taken on increased significance with the Red Sox purchasing the rights to talk with Matsuzaka from his Japanese team for $51.1 million, then spending $52 million more to sign him for six years. Although MLB already has a stronghold on the Japanese market – enough of one, in fact, to make Chicken Littles out of believers in Nippon Professional Baseball – it wants to deepen the roots there, plus in Taiwan, Australia, Europe and, biggest of all, China.
MLB is relying on international business to keep growing, perhaps not at the 300 percent clip Archey said it has over the past five to six years, but at a large rate nonetheless. Though less than 10 percent of its $5.2 billion in revenues comes from international markets, baseball is hoping the rest of the world picks up the slack, as its national media contracts in the U.S. are locked in and the growth of MLB Advanced Media, the sport's Internet arm, is unlikely to expand at the exponential rate it has.
All of this is important because revenues must rise commensurate with the massive uptick in player salaries this offseason, and as sports economist Andrew Zimbalist predicts 7 to 9 percent growth in revenues as opposed to the 11 percent of recent years, baseball must pick up the slack somewhere.
Zimbalist isn't sure that can be done internationally.
"The thing that's unpredictable is how much the sport is going to catch on outside of the United States," he said. "Like with China. They're trying. There's no evidence if it's going to work, and I don't know if I can predict that."
Archey showed his acumen with the World Baseball Classic, a success on almost all levels. Since 1989, he has done everything from paving the way for Hideo Nomo's arrival to negotiating the current six-year, $275 million television deal in Japan. MLB, too, will soon announce a TV deal in Taiwan, spurred by the emergence of the Yankees' likely Opening Day starter, Chien-Ming Wang.
"We still have significant growth," Archey said. "We're a long way from where we can be, even in our most traditional international markets.
"If we continue to sign international players, the business is going to continue to grow. And I don't think we're finished signing international players."
This offseason, Matsuzaka, starter Kei Igawa (Yankees) and third baseman Akinori Iwamura (Tampa Bay Devil Rays) came to MLB via the posting system, reliever Hideki Okajima signed a free-agent deal with Boston and reliever Masumi Kuwata is choosing between the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. More are sure to come if the posting system – which has flaws that Matsuzaka's agent, Scott Boras, exposed by demanding market-value money – is dropped or altered.
Already Ichiro has won an MVP, Tadahito Iguchi and So Taguchi World Series rings and Takashi Saito and Akinori Otsuka closer jobs. The Los Angeles Dodgers love Taiwanese pitcher Hong-Chih Kuo, the Mariners might give their No. 5 spot in the rotation to Korean Cha Seung Baek and, hey, there are 1.3 billion people – including around 150 million boys 14 years old and younger – in China.
"We'd love the Yao Ming effect," Archey said.
Simply put, he's hoping for one Chinese player who can change the sport's landscape in that country. He'll settle for a Nomo or Wang – anything to give entree into the world's largest marketplace, one baseball found itself shut out of for so long because of Mao Zedong's distaste for the sport. Baseball plans a regular-season game in China as soon as 2008, and Archey said there will be games in Europe over the next five years.
"There's nothing that excites a marketplace and energizes your business partners like having a game there," he said. "We know that if you play the game you're more likely to become a fan and more likely to watch television. We've seen in places we tried to grow it, when we get bats and balls in kids' hands, they may not become major leaguers, but they enjoy the game and want to play it."
Sometimes. In Europe and South Africa, where baseball has tried to catch on, the game remains a novelty, and the sport awaits its first Australian star. To believe baseball can infiltrate China – and not only do that, but steal market share from the well-established basketball – takes big, and perhaps excessive, hubris.
"I don't know how you make it work in total," said Maury Brown, who runs BizOfBaseball.com and is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. "Do you like NFL Europe? Shoot for a true World Series? There's been a dropping off in interest among America's youth, and instead of trying to get the country, we'll go international.
"It certainly has appeal in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Whether it has the appeal in Europe, China – it's a tough sell."
For now, Archey said he is content with the 80 international broadcasting deals that stream MLB games to 220 countries. Taiwan soon will be added to that list, and the TV stations there will certainly air the new McDonald's commercials featuring Wang. While MLB here is trying to develop smartphones on which you can watch games, Archey is depending on an old standby to buoy his business.
"I've spoken to the Red Sox at length, and for me one of the most exciting things it allows us to do is take this Yankee-Red Sox rivalry we know so much about and bring it over there," he said. "That's what you want to do with the international business, right?"
If that seems like a rhetorical question, you must click on the shopping link of Major.jp, MLB's Web site in Japan, for the answer. Right there, at the top of the page, is Daisuke Matsuzaka's jersey, white with red piping, the No. 18 stitched onto the back.
And underneath it, in two smaller graphic panels, is merchandise for the Red Sox and Yankees, with a large "VS." in between them.
The more things change, indeed.
- international business