Japan's Mizuno Swings for the Fences

Mizuno, the Japanese maker of baseball gloves and bats for major leaguers Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, is on a summer road trip to win more respect in the $1.8 billion U.S. baseball equipment market. In recent weeks the company has dispatched a caravan of blue-and-white vans to showcase its gear and gloves at stadiums, amateur fields, and sporting goods stores in California, Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky.

Mizuno is targeting these baseball strongholds to boost its U.S. sales by 33 percent, to $100 million, by 2015. A lot is at stake for the Osaka-based sporting goods company, which is up against entrenched rivals such as Nike (NKE), Rawlings, and Spalding. Mizuno has pulled out of markets in Europe and Latin America to focus resources on the U.S., says Hideki Tsuruoka, director of its baseball division. "The company who rules the U.S. market can rule world markets," says Tsuruoka, who played baseball at the University of Washington. "We will fight with gloves and spikes."

Mizuno has some ground to cover before becoming a dominant player. It ranked No. 6 in U.S. baseball and softball retail sales last year with an 8.2 percent share, according to data compiled by SportsOneSource. Mizuno is making its baseball push as the number of U.S. players declined 13 percent, to 13.8 million, last year from 15.8 million in 2000, according to data from the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Assn.

The field also is getting more crowded. Spalding is returning to the baseball equipment market after an absence of 10 years. "Baseball is kind of a no-brainer with our heritage," says Dave Coradini, senior director of diamond sports for Spalding, founded in 1876 and now a division of the Russell unit of Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A). "Mizuno and Rawlings are certainly the two strongest in terms of entire baseball-equipment brands. Now we are going to compete against them."

Mizuno enjoys some beneficial ties to Major League Baseball. About 170 players have contracts to use Mizuno gear and appear in the company's ads. "I've been using Mizuno since my childhood because of its quality," Matsui, a former New York Yankee, said in an e-mail. "Some of my teammates have come up to me and said, 'I want to try that' or 'I want to borrow that.' "

As part of its U.S. marketing push, Mizuno has increased the number of its American field representatives, who work with schools and baseball leagues, to 11 from 2. It also will install glove steamers at U.S. sporting goods shops to help customers break in their mitts. Later this year, the company will intensify its promotion of baseball equipment and clothing on U.S. websites and social networking outlets, says Bram Krieger, Mizuno's sales vice-president for diamond sports.

One big plus for Mizuno is its reputation for quality among professional baseball players. Pete Rose and Bobby Valentine were among the first major leaguers to wear Mizuno's mitts soon after the company entered the American market in 1969. "It was very difficult for a foreign company to enter the baseball world," says Valentine, who has managed the Texas Rangers, the New York Mets, and Japan's Chiba Lotte Marines. "The craftsmanship was so spectacular, and all of the details were made to perfection."

The bottom line: Mizuno, the leading maker of baseball equipment in Japan, is using a grassroots approach to increase its business in the U.S.

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