Yu Darvish’s smooth start with the Texas Rangers has rekindled Japan’s love for Major League Baseball (MLB), but the sport is casting longing glances at the biggest potential market of all — China.
The tall, handsome pitcher has sparked a run on Darvish T-shirts since his debut last month, while more women are visiting Tokyo’s MLB-themed restaurant and bigger numbers of Japanese flying to Arlington, Texas, for Rangers home games.
“Fans are much more eager to buy goods than last year when there were not so many talking points,” said Takuya Ishihama, who works at a major MLB goods shop in downtown Tokyo.
Games featuring the 25-year-old right-hander have been telecast live in the morning in Japan, sometimes from 2am, leaving many fans sleepless and blurry-eyed.
Darvish, known for his fastball and various breaking pitches, cost the Rangers a huge US$111.7 million in January, a record for a new Japanese signing. He was twice Japan’s MVP with his former club, Nippon Ham Fighters.
Since his April 9 MLB debut, Darvish has performed solidly to win six games against two losses in nine starts, striking out 63 batters, but yielding 47 hits and four home-runs.
The debut has been a relief to Japanese fans after a series of top-rated players failed to live up to expectations, and their large transfer fees, in the MLB.
However, Darvish’s success has also reminded the MLB about the vast potential across the East China Sea in China, where baseball remains in its infancy after being all but wiped out during the Cultural Revolution.
His exploits come after the MLB opened its season in Japan in March, the fourth time it has done so, drawing more than 43,000 fans to both of the games between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics in Tokyo.
“The success is expected to help further intensify MLB’s offensive in Asia, including China and South Korea, aside from Japan,” said Masanori Otsubo, a professor of sports management at Tokyo’s Teikyo University.
Jim Small, the Tokyo-based vice president of MLB Asia, said the sport has made progress in recent years in China, where it was played for about 100 years before being banned under revolutionary Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
“So we have a lot more work to do in getting the game popular again and also developing major league players,” he said.
The China Baseball League was formed in 2002 and now, more than 400 million people there can watch the World Series on TV, Small said.
MLB has also introduced the game to more than 5 million people through grassroots programs, and opened two centers to train young players — in the hope that some can, one day, make the move to the US.
“Japan remains our most important market, from a financial standpoint and an popularity standpoint, outside of North America,” Small said.
“In Korea and Taiwan, our business is similar to Japan,” he said. “The game has been popular there for many years and we have local Korean and Taiwanese players playing in the major leagues.”
He said China is still a long way from overtaking Japan as MLB’s top Asian market. However, the long-term goal is clear.
“That will take a lot of work and might not happen in the next few years, but it will be fun to watch,” Small said.