The addition of Asian ballplayers is likely to boost spring training's $453-million Florida impact.
Daisuke Matsuzaka has already won plenty of games in baseball-crazed Japan, where the 26-year-old pitcher has risen to hero status. The question now is, what can he do for Florida?
After signing a six-year, $52-million contract with the Boston Red Sox, Matsuzaka will make his Major League debut in Florida this month. The Red Sox train in Fort Myers, where the Matsuzaka preparations have been going on since December.
Hundreds of Japanese journalists and tourists are expected to tag along as the Red Sox's Daisuke Matsuzaka makes his U.S. debut in Florida this month. [Photo: Jeff Gross / Getty Images]
"We're expecting several hundred journalists from Japan and several thousand Japanese tourists," says D.T. Minich, executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau. "So we're translating some of our key tourist information into Japanese, including general lists of restaurants, golf courses and shopping."
The Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa created a two-page newsletter written in Japanese that, with help from Visit Florida, was distributed to Japanese travel trade groups, Japanese media outlets and travel agents. The idea is to capitalize on the previously untapped Japanese market, not just this year, but for years to come.
"Orlando is a big gateway for Japanese tourists, but with the signing of Daisuke Matsuzaka we're trying to establish a relationship here, too," says Jo Bayley, Sanibel Harbor Resort & Spa's director of travel industry sales. "I think there's quite a bit of potential."
The other challenge is getting the visitors to experience more of Florida than spring training. "This is a great opportunity," says Vanessa Welter of Visit Florida. "The Japanese people love baseball, but they're probably going to also want to spend time in Orlando to see the parks and attractions. And they'll want to go to the beach and play golf."
Besides Matsuzaka, at least three other Japanese players have signed contracts with MLB teams this year, including Akinori Iwamura with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. But Matsuzaka, who compiled a 108-60 record in Japan, will be by far the biggest draw.
The last time the signing of a Japanese ballplayer impacted Florida to any degree was in 2003, when the New York Yankees agreed to a contract with Japanese outfielder Hideki Matsui. Matsui, nicknamed Godzilla, was shadowed by hundreds of Japanese media as the Yankees trained in Tampa. And Steve Hayes, executive vice president of the Tampa Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the attention was good for Tampa Bay: "We were even interviewed on Japanese television, by one of the major networks, and the story was about Tampa as a place to visit. That never would have happened if not for the fact that Matsui was here."
Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, thinks Matsuzaka will attract even more attention than Matsui. "Matsuzaka has an incredible following," Mielke says. "This guy is kind of considered the Elvis of baseball over in Japan."
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