Economic Baseball Theory of the Day: Is the Ichiro Effect Real?

Can a team's star player affect a city's economic trajectory?

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Robert Sorbo/Reuters

When the Seattle Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees on Monday, they may have given up more than just run production. Local media outlets reported that the city could be set to lose millions in Ichiro tourism: Seattle and its region welcomed about 64,000 Japanese tourists last year, nearly twice the number of people who visit from runner-up China. Tom Norwalk, president of the Seattle Convention and Visitors bureau, told MyNorthwest.com the loss would be "gigantic."

Beyond the occasional Japanese-language advertising on the walls of Safeco Field, it’s easy to forget that some of our athletes have such devoted followings at home. The Yankees’ Taiwanese ace Chien Ming Wang, for example, apparently fired up the Taiwanese stock exchange with strong performances on the mound. Since signing the Japanese superstar center-fielder in 2001, the Mariners have enjoyed international popularity - they did a three-week exhibition tour in Japan this spring - producing an economic boost for the team and for Seattle known locally as the Ichiro Effect. Makoto Ogasawara, who runs the Seattle branch of a Japanese tourism country, told the Seattle Times that his clients came to see two things: Starbucks and Ichiro. But it’s unclear how much the city really stands to lose with his departure.

One historical precedent we might look to is the departure of LeBron James from the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010. Gloomy journalists predicted that portions of the city’s economy connected to the basketball team - sports bars, for example - would simply disappear. “Exactly how much LeBron James means to the local economy is difficult to calculate,” wrote Robert Schoenberger in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “Millions? Of course. Billions? Maybe, maybe not.”

But while the Cavaliers attendance dropped from 2nd in the league in 2010 to 19th in 2012, the reverberations around Cleveland were not as bad as predicted. The team, rather than the town, felt the loss of the superstar most.

I asked Raymond D. Sauer, an economics professor at Clemson University who contributes to the Sports Economist blog, if he thought that Seattle was going to miss the Ichiro Effect, and he seemed skeptical. “To the extent there was an Ichiro Effect initially - and there certainly was quite a splash - I think that it has depreciated with the arrival of other good Japanese ballplayers,” he says. In other words, Japanese baseball tourism has widened to include players around the country like Hideki Matsui or Hiroki Kiroda, the Japanese-born Yankee who struck out nine yesterday in, of all places, Seattle. The Mariners, by the way, still have two Japanese players on their roster, Hisashi Iwakuma and Munenori Kawasaki, though neither has been impressive this season.

At the very least, Ichiro’s Mariners jerseys have been selling like hotcakes in Japan since the trade - how’s that for an Ichiro Effect?

Photo credit: Robert Sorbo/Reuters

About the Author

  • Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at CityLab. He lives in New York.