It was the middle of winter 2003 when Mark Lemmon, the Toronto Blue Jays' vice president of corporate partnerships, got the call. The person on the other end spoke in broken English, but it was clear that he was interested in advertising at SkyDome for the upcoming season.
Lemmon didn't usually let an unsolicited pitch over the phone get this far, but he soon began to understand the magnitude of the proposal. The man was a Japanese advertising executive who had seen the in-stadium advertising for Japanese companies at Safeco Field since Ichiro arrived and he was wondering if the same opportunity was available at Skydome when the Mariners came to play the Blue Jays.
Thanks to the cold call and subsequent execution by the team, the Blue Jays became the first team to sell advertising for the games when the most popular Japanese players come to town.
"Luckily, at some point in the conversation, I realized that this guy was serious," Lemmon said.
The Japanese advertising firm, Taihei, purchased signage at Blue Jays games for its clients, including a male spa called Dandy House and Megame Super eyewear. This year, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays joined the profit party of facing the league's most popular Japanese players -- Hideki Matsui and Suzuki. Tampa Bay has inked a six-figure deal for behind-the-plate signage, selling half-inning spots to the firm soon after they returned from the season-opening series against the New York Yankees in Japan.
The selective Japanese advertising is expected to become a trend as the availability of major-league games in Japan continues to grow, according to Paul Archey, senior vice president of Major League Baseball International. This season is the first of a six-year, $275 million rights deal paid by Japanese advertising firm Dentsu to distribute the games. Approximately 300 games will be shown, 80 percent of them including either the Yankees, Mariners or Mets.
Japanese companies use the ads behind the plate to target Japanese tourists who come to see the games as well as the television audience watching the games back in Japan.
"Businesses are looking to get the double whammy both here and in Japan," Archey said.
An estimated 20 percent of the fans in the stands at Blue Jays home games against the Yankees and the Mariners are Asian. This year, Lemmon said the team added temporary outfield signage for the 16 total games against the teams and interest could increase from Japanese companies should their new 27-year-old Japanese reliever Mike Nakamura make it big.
"They are not fooling around with their investment in us and we aren't fooling around with our execution," said Lemmon, who plans to fly to Japan to negotiate marketing deals with Japanese companies before next season.
Since playing the Yankees in a season-opening series in Japan, the Devil Rays have struck advertising deals with six Japanese companies, including Nikon and Fujifilm, according to David Auker, senior vice president of business operations for the team.
Selling advertising is one of the few ways teams with Japanese players can benefit from acquiring the player, which is always a bidding war with the absence of an international draft in baseball.
Teams like the Mariners, who are owned by Nintendo founder Hiroshi Yamauchi, have signs in Japanese script behind the home plate for all home games. Since the Yankees have Hideki Matsui, a Continental Airlines billboard appears behind home plate in both English and Japanese. Beyond numerous deals with Nikon, Mass Mutual of Japan and Konica/Minolta, the Mets also struck a deal with Panasonic, which places its logo on the backdrop used at postgame press conference, a prime location since Kaz Matsui's address is always broadcast in Japan.
The Mariners are paying Suzuki $11 million this year, the Yankees are giving Hideki Matsui $7 million and the Mets signed Kaz Matsui to a contract that will yield him $5 million this season. But the teams do not receive any more money than the rest of those in the league, even though the three players are largely responsible for the huge growth in licensing and television rights revenues coming from Japan. Even though all the home games of each team are broadcast back to Japan, all international revenues are split 30 ways.
"I think all the team executives understand that this stuff goes in cycles," Archey said. "Right now, the Yankees, the Mariners and the Mets have the players. In a couple years, it could be the Colorado Rockies with their Taiwanese pitcher, Chin-hui Tsao. Last year, Korea was interested in the Chicago Cubs because of Hee Seop Choi. Now they watch more Florida Marlins games because he now plays on that team."
Mets officials don't have any objections with the current system either.
"We knew what the rules were when we began pursuing Kaz Matsui," said Dave Howard, the Mets' executive vice president of business operations.
"The real benefit of signing a player like Kaz to a $20 million [deal] isn't to get a bigger portion of licensing or television dollars or even to sell a couple signs in the stadium or see a bump in ticket sales," he said. "Our bottom line is that he is an exciting, young superstar player who helps make our team better."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com