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Sox to pay $51.1m in quest to sign pitcher

In a high-stakes gambit that could change the face of Boston baseball, the Red Sox are poised to spend as much as $90 million to land Japan's greatest contemporary pitcher, Daisuke Matsuzaka, a 26-year-old phenom whose value might be measured more in the anguish he could cause the archrival Yankees than in the Sox' chances to otherwise profit from their lavish investment.

The Sox, in a record-setting reach into the Japanese market, agreed to pay Matsuzaka's team, the Seibu Lions, $51.1 million for the right to negotiate a contract with the righthanded ace. Under the deal, the Sox have 30 days to sign Matsuzaka, and his agent, Scott Boras, may be seeking something in the range of a four-year pact worth at least $40 million.

When and if a deal is finally done, the annual investment could average out to the most the Sox have ever spent on a pitcher, which so far is the $17.5 million Pedro Martínez earned in his final season here, 2004. And that would be far more than even the marketing maestros on Yawkey Way could expect to reap from exploiting Matsuzaka's connection to his homeland, according to baseball officials and economists.

"That's pretty rich," said Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist who specializes in baseball finances, of the projected investment. "But it looks like it's more about winning than revenues."

The Sox wanted not only to block the Yankees from acquiring Matsuzaka, the best player to depart Japan for the major leagues since Hideki Matsui arrived in the Bronx in 2003, but also to secure a star who could help them capture their second world championship of the millennium. That alone would trigger a financial windfall. Anything more could be gravy.

Zimbalist estimated that the Sox might gain no more than $3 million a year by cashing in on the Japanese icon because they would be required under major league rules to equally distribute the vast majority of their earnings related to the merchandising of Matsuzaka with the 29 other teams.

By all indications, the Sox would have to devise a unique marketing strategy to reap a financial windfall. Like the Yankees and Seattle Mariners, who signed Japanese superstar Ichiro Suzuki in 2001, the Sox likely would benefit a bit from Japanese companies advertising in their ballpark. The Sox almost certainly would add a sushi stand at Fenway. "Matsu-tinis," a variation on the "Ichi-tinis" that surfaced with Suzuki in Seattle, could flow in the luxury suites. And the ballpark tours might become bilingual to accommodate a crush of Japanese fans -- if Matsuzaka delivers.

"It will totally depend on how well he performs," said Josh Wilber, an assistant for information and cultural affairs for Japan's consul general in Boston. "If he does a good job, I'm sure the Japanese population in New England would be extremely supportive of him."

But even if Boston were struck by Matsuzaka mania, causing a run on merchandise, the Sox would reap only as much as the other 29 teams because of the league's revenue-sharing rules on the sale of licensed goods. The same would go for any foreign television rights the Sox might sell. And even though the Sox own 80 percent of NESN, which broadcasts nearly their entire schedule, the network would be unlikely to attract much, if any, new advertising tailored to the region's relatively small Japanese market.

Nor would the Sox be likely to cash in on increased ticket sales, since they set a season attendance record (2,930,588) last season while extending their streak of consecutive sellouts to 307 games since 2003.

The best chance for the Sox to cash in on Matsuzaka may hinge on their Internet creativity. They could sell Japanese fans memberships to Red Sox Nation, for example, with enhanced features such as Web-based programming that otherwise would be unavailable to them. The features could include news, stats, and player updates.

The Sox, however, would score a strategic -- and prestigious -- victory by extending their presence into the Asian market. The lucrative market has rapidly expanded for Major League Baseball in recent years, though it has been dominated by the Yankees and Mariners because of Matsui and Suzuki.

"There was a lot of interest in televising those players in Japan," said Patrick Courtney, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "I'm sure there will be a lot of interest in televising [Matsuzaka] there as well."

Boston's tourism business would benefit, at least from the large Japanese media contingent that would be assigned to Matsuzaka. Many Japanese tourists could follow.

"We noticed an immediate upsurge in tourism from Japan when Ichiro signed with the Mariners," said David Blandford of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Some restaurants even began transcribing their menus into Japanese."

Sports marketing specialists cited several high-profile examples of teams that have acquired star players from emerging foreign markets, with varying degrees of success. The best example of a foreign star boosting a team's bottom line is Yao Ming, the 7-foot-5-inch center for the NBA's Houston Rockets.

Yao arrived in the United States from China in 2002 and made an immediate impact on Houston's financial fortunes as well as the NBA's exposure in China.

"When the Houston Rockets and the NBA got aggressive with opening the China markets through their signing of Yao Ming and their strategic marketing of Yao Ming, they literally increased viewership and interest in the NBA by hundreds of millions of fans virtually overnight," said Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a Denver sports marketing firm.

The NBA played its first game in China in 2004, featuring Yao and the Rockets. The next year, the number of NBA corporate marketing partnerships in that country more than doubled, to 15. China's infatuation with the NBA since has grown beyond Yao, with the replica jerseys of his teammate Tracy McGrady and the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson overtaking Yao's as the most widely sold in that country.

The NBA declined to state how much it earns from sponsorships, broadcasting deals, and merchandise sales in China, but said its revenues there would increase by 50 percent this year.

"There has been a net economic effect into the seven figures from companies trying to reach into China from the Yao effect," said Greg Elliott, the Rockets' vice president of corporate development.

But it's doubtful the Red Sox would reap a similar benefit from acquiring Matsuzaka, according to the marketing specialists.

"The Yao Ming effect is likely to never be repeated again in sports," Bonham said. "There aren't many markets like China, and there aren't many places where a superstar can come into the American market as dramatically."

Unless, of course, Matsuzaka could help the Sox win another championship.