In the last year we continue to see major global sports brands; Manchester City and Bayern Munich, the Aviva Premiership and Chelsea FC, try to put down roots and bring their business brand to the United States. The opposite growth, U.S. sports exporting to other parts of the world, is limited at this point because of the major leagues hold on global marketing rights, especially TV and digital, and the highly valuable revenue sharing that is the lifeblood of teams big and small. Some teams have made attempts to put down foreign roots to cultivate new opportunities and export their brand; the Brooklyn Nets have made efforts, and organizations that own clubs both in the United States and abroad (Fenway Sports Group, Kroenke Sports and Entertainment) have looked to cross-pollinate and bring benefit to brands around the world. We also see a great influx of country-specific brands when a global superstar such as Yao Ming lands in Houston or Ichiro Suzuki in Seattle, where teams immediately capitalize on their in market inventory and sell programs, largely based on broadcast, where non-traditonal brands can be seen in front of a suddenly large media following now looped on to their team.
Those efforts ebb and flow as players come in and out, and rarely do they translate into long-term business partnerships; they are for the most part a one off.
However one team, a global brand already, has quietly and effectively started to continue to grow its brand to a base-ball crazy nation, and has seen sustained fruits of their labor from a business perspective continue to come through the door; the New York Yankees. The Bronx Bombers have had a long history of brand cultivation outside the U.S.; they were one of the first teams to try and partner with another global powerhouse for marketing, with Manchester United in the early 1990’s, and their partnership with Manchester City Football Club today has brought NYCFC to fruition for MLS. In the 1930’s their players, led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, were among the first to really bring baseball to Japan, and helped spawn the growth of Japanese Professional baseball that exists today. That cultural and business push into Japan has been heightened in recent years, and the Yankees, perhaps more than any other American franchise thus far, have expanded that relationship the best through smart business practices.
Now it has not hurt that The Bombers have deep pockets on the player development side, and have been able to roll the dice and bring in some of the biggest names in Japanese baseball to play in The Bronx. From their first tries with Hideki Irabu to the more recent successes with Ichiro (for a short while) and Masahiro Tanaka to their best investment both on the field and off Hideki Matsui, New York has seen and grabbed, some of the best value and biggest names and translated those investments into business success.
Big bucks or not, it does take investment and the ability to weather short term storms to make a global business strategy in sports work. While many clubs have invested in cultivating the growing Latino market, the Yankees are the first team to have an Asian player, Matsui, on staff to cultivate both the Japanese baseball and business community as well as working with non-Japanese players on their infield improvement. He is an underrated and elegant ambassador for the game and gives the team an added edge when brands, especially those with Japanese roots who are looking to invest in American sport, come calling. It also doesn’t hurt that the team has put down business roots in Japan, and has forged baseball relationships and shared practices with a mega-club like the Yomiuri Giants, and has people on the ground 24/7 who understand the culture and the language so that not just baseball, but business, can be done from thousands of miles away. While star players like Tanaka bring the massive media attention and millions of eyeballs from abroad, the team can enhance with a strong business acumen that is years in building, and seen as not going away when a star’s career is over.
The Yankees can stand for many things in Japanese business practices, and have become an interesting first stop for more and more brands coming into the market. That relationship has also not been lost on American brands looking to do business in Japan. The most recent example was Met Life, who changed some of their signage at Yankee Stadium from English to Japanese not just as a way to speak directly to the millions following Tanaka’s progress, but to those multicultural fans in the States who are attending games and living in and around the New York area. It was subtle but very smart, and was encouraged in all likelihood by the Yankees as a smart sales tool.
While the “all in” idea for Japanese integration may not make sense in smaller markets, it makes great sense in a multicultural and ethnically diverse atmosphere like New York. As the new immigrant becomes more Asian and Latino, clubs are looking to find ways to better understand the culture and raw new fans to an American game that might be “foreign” to them at first look. Japan presents a unique opportunity since baseball is so ingrained in that culture, but American baseball and tis business challenges are still a cultural shift. By taking the time not just to understand and adapt from a business, but to make an investment in having staffers on board who are identifiable and can be ambassadors, the Yankees have found ways to win in business, from Kikkoman Soy Sauce to electronics categories, that few clubs have been able to do, and do it seamlessly and without losing any traditional sponsor momentum. Would it have worked thus far without high profile Japanese stars? No. But many times those stars and the business relationships become one and done, and clubs are back to the same sale to the traditional businesses.
The Yankees have gone far and above in cultivating a Japanese business clientele and it has quietly and effectively paid off on the field and in the boardroom.
A smart long term investment worth following for others.