Next pitch to Ichiro: fat endorsement deals

TOKYO — High-school baseball player Masanori Taguchi knew exactly where a teammate should go to pick out a new outfielder's glove: the "Ichiro section" of Mizuno Corp.'s main store in Tokyo.

"Ichiro equals Mizuno," Taguchi said as he and his pal tried out gloves during a recent lunch break.

Mizuno, Japan's largest sporting-goods company, is looking smart these days, having signed up baseball star Ichiro Suzuki as a spokesman in 1995. Now, as the Seattle Mariners outfielder comes off a record-setting first year in the Major Leagues, other companies are clamoring to get on the bandwagon.

No one is saying yet that Suzuki will break into sport's top tier of product endorsers with Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. Seattle's playoff loss this week to the New York Yankees — ending his chance to be showcased in the World Series — doesn't help. Yet continued success on the field may make him a big winner off the field as well, marketing executives say.

"He is the perfect package — his work ethic and commitment embody what businesses want in a spokesperson," said David Carter, principal owner of Sports Business Group, a marketing consultancy in Los Angeles.

Many companies agree, according to Tony Attanasio, Suzuki's California-based agent, who says his client's earnings potential may be limited only by his reluctance to grab every deal he's offered.

The 28-year-old Suzuki has already turned down "well in excess" of $14 million in endorsement opportunities, Attanasio said. "For every one we accept, we reject five to eight."

In mid-August, Suzuki signed a contract with Cutter & Buck, giving the Seattle-based golf sportswear company the right to sell men's and women's apparel decorated with an Ichiro logo designed by the baseball star's brother and wife. Terms of the agreement were not disclosed.

"With all the Ichiro products in the marketplace, most were centered around silk-screened T-shirts and caps, and that's not our bread and butter," said Dave Venneri, Cutter & Buck's director of sports business. "We wanted to find something for the more affluent Ichiro fan ... sort of an upscale Ichiro line."

Cutter & Buck's Ichiro products include shirts, sweaters, jackets and even cotton dresses, and are sold mainly at the Mariners' team store and through Major League Baseball's Web site, Venneri said the team store sold about 80 percent of its Cutter & Buck Ichiro merchandise within two or three weeks of hitting the racks in late August.

Suzuki also has inked deals with Oakley Inc., a California sunglasses maker; Majestic Athletic, a Pennsylvania sporting-goods company; and Upper Deck, a California company that makes sports trading cards. Starting tomorrow, Upper Deck plans an online auction of "game-used" Ichiro memorabilia, including a cracked bat and right elbow pad.

Nikko Cordial Corp., formerly Nikko Securities, hired Suzuki to appear in ads that began late last month to herald its Oct. 1 change into a holding company with a new name.

"This is the first time we are using a sports star in our advertising campaign, but we've had a much more positive reaction from our ads with Ichiro," said Shinji Nishihiro, a spokesman for Japan's third-largest brokerage. "Customers are coming into our branches saying they saw the ad."

Nikko doesn't yet have figures measuring the response, Nishihiro said. He declined to say how much it's paying Suzuki.

For Osaka-based Mizuno, Suzuki has been a bright spot in a tough year. The company on Monday slashed its group net income forecast for the year ending March 31 by 70 percent, citing falling sales of golf products.

Sales of "Ichiro Model" bats and gloves, by contrast, have soared, said spokesman Ritsuo Haji. The company had projected sales of 580 million yen ($4.7 million) in Ichiro goods this year, "but we've already changed our forecast to double that amount," Haji said.

Mizuno's Tokyo headquarters store dedicated a quarter of one floor to Ichiro merchandise in July, when Suzuki became the top vote-getter in Major League Baseball's All-Star game, the first time a rookie player has done that. Ichiro-gear sales have jumped 70 percent to 80 percent since then, said Takao Taniguchi, the store's baseball department vice-manager.

Mizuno hopes to introduce Ichiro equipment in the U.S. next spring, when the new baseball season opens, Haji said.

His endorsement contracts to date and salary of $4.7 million to $5.7 million leave Suzuki well shy of the $50 million league of Formula One driver Michael Schumacher (No. 1 last year on Forbes magazine's list of endorsers with estimated total earnings of $59 million), Jordan and other superstars.

Whether he hits those heights depends in part on his ability to remain popular with fans, who like his low-key style so far, said Sports Business Group's Carter. Rather than court publicity, Suzuki is reluctant to grant interviews and even staged a brief boycott of Japanese reporters when he thought they were prying.

"He has a sense of mystery attached to the way he carries himself" that makes him appealing, Carter said. "But if we find out more about him and don't like it, he may be in trouble."

Suzuki's reticence eventually may hurt his marketability, though. Reporters complain that his curt answers in post-game press conferences make for boring copy. In addition, his limited English may not give him the "broad global appeal" of someone like Jordan, Carter said.

Suzuki also may suffer the fate of countryman and former Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Hideo Nomo, who spawned "Nomo-mania" in 1995, when he also was elected to the All-Star game. Nomo's appeal faded after he had several mediocre seasons.

For now, Suzuki is not only a hit in the U.S. but is more popular in his native land than he was during his playing days for the Orix Blue Wave in Kobe, said Jim Allen, baseball columnist for Tokyo's Daily Yomiuri newspaper.

"There are people in Japan who saw Ichiro for the first time after he went to play in the Major Leagues," Allen said. "Playing in the U.S. opened up a door of opportunity."

Information from Seattle Times business reporter Jake Batsell is included in this report.