The Seattle economy benefited over the past 12 years from the thousands of Japanese tourists visiting the region to see their homegrown hero play at Safeco.
After Wednesday’s game at Safeco Field, former Mariner Ichiro will head to the Big Apple for his home debut Friday as a New York Yankee. When he departs Seattle, so will the Ichiro Effect.
That’s the economic boost Seattle and the Mariners have received over the past 12 years from the thousands of Japanese tourists visiting the region to see their homegrown hero play at Safeco. Although this impact has likely declined the past two years as Ichiro’s success on the field has moderated, certain Seattle businesses will take one on the chin with his exit.
Makoto Ogasawara is the manager at the Seattle branch of Azumano International, a company that provides tours of this region to travelers from Japan. His company leads expeditions to such Northwest attractions as Mount Rainier and Olympic National Park. But, Ogasawara says, the real draw is Ichiro.
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Ogasawara is worried revenues for his $1 million tour business will shrink now that his main draw is a Yankee.
“It’s really disappointing; it’s an unexpected turn,” Ogasawara said of Ichiro’s trade to the Yankees on Monday. He notes, however, that the boom for this MLB Tour occurred seven years ago, and has since fallen.
“The peak was 2005 and 2006,” he said.
On Tuesday, Azumano International had five guests booked on a Mariners tour. By contrast, during Ichiro’s early Mariner years — he arrived in 2001 — Ogasawara would organize groups of up to 70.
Most of Tuesday’s group met at Westlake Center and meandered through that shopping area before boarding a bus to Safeco Field for the evening game.
“The only reason I’m here is because of Ichiro,” Mitsuru Shirai, a tourist from Japan’s Shizuoka Prefecture, said through a translator. While here, he also visited Pike Place Market. Next on his list is Boeing Field.
Travis Williams, a sales manager at Hotel Max downtown, says guests from Japan at his hotel often have two Seattle must-sees on their minds.
“They want to see Starbucks and they want to see Ichiro,” Williams said.
Ichiro’s impact, however, echoes beyond the direct benefits of tourism dollars that flow through shops and restaurants. Sam Kaplan, president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle, says the attention Ichiro brings to Seattle can help local businesses in their search for financing.
“Today’s tourist is tomorrow’s investor,” he said. “Some people around the world might not realize that we have Amazon here or Microsoft.”
Japan sends more tourists to Seattle than any other country, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. At more than 64,000 in 2011, it sent nearly twice the number of tourists here than did the our region’s second-highest tourism source — China.
And, according to Port of Seattle statistics, the number of tourists from Asia who arrived at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport grew 9.1 percent from 2010 to 2011.
In addition to ticket sales, media deals and sports apparel are significant revenue streams for any professional sports franchise.
Eric Fisher, a writer for Sports Business Journal, said that since Ichiro became a Mariner — and later when Hideki Matsui went to the Yankees — Major League Baseball has been enjoying increased revenue from baseball enthusiasts in Japan.
“We’ve seen an uptick in the number of media deals in Japan over the last couple of years,” he said.
As for Mariners apparel, Ben Glade, assistant manager at the Sodo Sports apparel shop just 200 feet from Safeco Field, noticed an increase in sales for Ichiro gear after the trade was announced Monday.
“It’s been at least double, if not triple,” he said. “When I first got here at 4 [o'clock], it was really busy in here. I came up to the register, and we had someone with four Ichiro shirts in their hands.”
He doesn’t think the store will be left with a large stock of Ichiro merchandise. “He was an All Star several times over, so he’ll still sell well, but maybe at a discount,” Glade said.
Ogasawara, although dismayed about Ichiro’s move, notes there’s still potential for players to take his spot in the hearts of his customers.
“We still have two Japanese players,” he said, referring to pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma and infielder Munenori Kawasaki.
Might there be an Iwakuma Effect? How about a Kawasaki Effect? It’s unlikely. Neither player has Ichiro’s celebrity status across the Pacific.
Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or firstname.lastname@example.org