The scene was one to warm the heart of entrepreneurs everywhere. Game time for Game 2 of the Jazz-Suns Japanese Opening series was still two hours away and a sea of blackhaired people was engulfing the souvenir stands on the concourse level of the Metropolitan Gymnasium.
If they'd come early to shop, they hadn't beaten the crowd.Especially hot were the official books of the Opening Games, featuring Jazz center Mark Eaton on the cover. They were selling for 3,000 yen (about $25) the first game. Now they were reduced to 1,500 yen. Supply had obviously exceeded demand.
Larry Bird basketballs, NBA mini-hoops, Michael Jordan posters, Lakers starter jackets and, of course, Mailman Malone T-shirts were selling like rice cakes, which, by the way, weren't doing all that badly either.
For 400 yen (about $3), boxes of rice, along with some kind of fish, were selling at the concession stands, which were doing a brisk pregame business of their own. NBA basketball in the Orient is the same as NBA basketball in the United States, only the food is slightly different. That, and people tend to eat in private in the lobby, not in their seats. Displays of public eating aren't well received in Japan. A vendor would starve to death in Tokyo.
In the arena's concession stands, hot dogs and hamburgers weren't available, but raw fish was (from 500 to 800 yen, about $4 to $6.50). A box of four small sandwiches sold for 500 yen, about $2; a carton of chocolate milk for 100 yen, about 80 cents. Coca-Cola, the international beverage, sold for 200 yen for the 12-ounce size, about $1.60.
Consumerism doesn't appear to be a problem in Japan. Particularly for items imported from America. The dollar-to-yen exchange rate currently favors the yen by a considerable margin. This is one nation on earth that reads about Karl Malone's $3.2 million salary and doesn't blanch a bit.
At an exchange rate of 128 yen for one American dollar - down from 150-to-$1 just six months ago and highs of 500-to-$1 20 years ago - the Japanese yen is capable of buying a lot of NBA merchandise. A situation the NBA is happy to capitalize on not only this week, but increasingly in the future.
They're able to charge roughly double the U.S. retail price for most items that carry the NBA label.
In that respect, they're doing what American fastfood businesses have been doing in Japan for years.
It is practically impossible to walk more than a few blocks in Tokyo without running into the McDonald's golden arches. Also prevalent are Wendy's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Dairy Queen, Shakey's Pizza, and Dunkin' Donuts.
A double cheeseburger at Wendy's costs 350 yen, about $3 at the current exchange rate. A large order of fries is 240 yen, about $2. A 2-piece chicken dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken costs about $7.
Much as these American imports have found acceptance, so, it appears, has the NBA.
"Selling tickets was the least of our concerns going in," said David Stern, the NBA commissioner. "From everything we heard, Japan was going to be very receptive to the NBA."
As it turned out, everything they heard was right. The merchandise they didn't sell this weekend, they left behind. Selling a few thousand Mailman t-shirts wasn't bad, but that still leaves approximately 119 million Japanese customers who don't own one.