Robert Sorbo/Reuters

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

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

Most Popular

  1. Life

    The History of Sears Predicts Nearly Everything Amazon Is Doing

    One hundred years ago, a retail giant that shipped millions of products by mail moved swiftly into the brick-and-mortar business, changing it forever. Is that happening again?

  2. Transportation

    An App For Democratizing Street Design

    So far, tech companies have been determining how driverless cars will fit into the grid. ReStreet invites you to weigh in.

  3. POV

    Why the Future Looks Like Pittsburgh

    The city’s rise as a global innovation city reflects decades of investment in emerging technology, a new Brookings report says.

  4. Life

    Where New York City Is Going Next

    In part two of our interview with Dan Doctoroff, the former deputy mayor of economic development and current CEO of Sidewalk Labs shares his thoughts on zoning, transportation, technology, and President Trump.

  5. Solutions

    America's Loneliest Town Is Searching for a Match

    It's four hours to the nearest airport, three hours to Walmart, and there's no high-speed internet. But this tiny mining town is still determined to join the 21st century.