New York: Godzilla to the Rescue?

Matsui could boost the Yanks' prospects--and tourist dollars

Even for the New York Yankees, it was a circus. In baseball-dead January, 400 journalists, including 28 TV crews, jammed a hotel ballroom on Times Square to record the world-shaking sight of a Japanese slugger--who speaks no English and has never faced a pitch in America--donning pinstripes.

Yes, folks, this was the made-for-TV-in-two-nations debut of Hideki Matsui, a 28-year-old superstar in Japan who now carries on his shoulders the Yao Ming-like dreams of the Yankees, Major League Baseball, and New York City.

Of course, Matsui doesn't work for ballpark peanuts. The rollout included his signing a $21 million, three-year contract. That's big, but even jaded New York sportswriters--outnumbered 3-1 by their Japanese counterparts--couldn't believe the hoopla, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg welcoming Matsui.

Sports clearly was not the only storyline. "We're losing about $1 million a year from Japanese tourists since 9/11," says Cristyne L. Nicholas, president and chief executive of NYC & Co., the city's convention and visitors' bureau. "We want to get back to the levels of 1996, when 447,000 Japanese visited New York. We feel Matsui can help." He already has: Japanese tour companies are clamoring for Yankee tickets. Several have bought more than 1,000.

Matsui's decision to leave Japan's preeminent team, the Yomiuri Giants, after 10 years was hardly surprising: Superstar Ichiro Suzuki left to join the Mariners in 2001 and is now a cult figure at home and in Seattle. Matsui is not only Japan's top home-run hitter--with 50 over the fence last season--but also a marketing machine. His understated charm and infectious smile have won him sponsorship deals for everything from cookies to analgesic salves.

Matsui even comes with a catchy nickname, Godzilla--earned more for his huge home runs than his 6-foot 1-inch, 210-pound frame. The package looked promising enough to attract Rob Urbach of SFX Sports Group, who helped engineer Michael Jordan's commercial success. "Matsui might be the most recognized person in Japan," says Urbach. "We're all looking for the next Michael, and Matsui is a combination of him as a player and a person."

The selling of Matsui stateside began with stints on Live with Regis and Kelly and Late Night with David Letterman and contracts with trading-card company Upper Deck and sporting goods maker Mizuno. Deals in financial services and telecom and with a Japanese carmaker are pending. "We want to build on a foundation of core companies in major categories," says Urbach. "Ideally, [they] can work together in coordinated campaigns. We wouldn't want to do a Pepsi and McDonald's, because McDonald's supports Coke exclusively."

For MLB, Godzilla means deeper inroads into Japan, already addicted to Ichiro games. Last season, fewer than 20 Yankee games were broadcast there; MLB expects that to increase four- or fivefold. Also, MLB--now in the final year of a five-year, $65 million broadcasting contract with Dentsu Inc., Japan's huge advertising company--is negotiating a new TV deal. With the addition of Matsui, "I expect to realize a significant increase in our rights fees," says MLB Senior Vice-President Paul Archey.

The Yankees apparently are undeterred by their previous experience with another Hideki--pitcher Hideki Irabu, traded in 1999 after three inglorious seasons. The front office thinks Matsui will help the Yanks regain the top spot selling American baseball merchandise in Japan--a position lost to Ichiro and Seattle in 2001. "Matsui is a great marketing tool because he is himself, and people respond to that," says Yankees COO Lonn Trost. "[Matsui] will be loved by the fans--not only the Japanese but all the fans of New York." Of course, he adds, all of that depends on how well Godzilla can handle a big-league fastball.

By Skip Rozin in New York

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