February 2024

The making of Shohei Ohtani, Japan’s $700 million man

Shohei Ohtani in 2023 - Wikipedia

Shohei Ohtani was producing an unprecedented MVP season in 2023, as media speculation grew that the greatest two-way player in baseball history would receive the sport’s most lucrative contract. 

Based on his earning potential, and with a nod to 1970s U.S. television show featuring a hero with bionic superpowers, some dubbed Shohei “Japan’s $600 million man”. However, an elbow injury forced his season to end prematurely, which deflated the hyperbole surrounding his next contract. 

But as in The Six Million Dollar Man, doctors “rebuilt” the star during postseason surgery, and in December the 29-year-old from Iwate Prefecture signed a $700 million, 10-year contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, surpassing the record for any sport. 

Buried within the deal for the hero who led Japan to the World Baseball Classic (WBC) title in March was a delayed payment of $680 million. This allowed the team to sign other talent, including, in late December, compatriot Yoshinobu Yamamoto for a mere $325 million.

“Ohtani and Yamamoto have shown that dreams do come true if you work hard,” said Taka Shirai, executive director of the Matsui 55 Baseball Foundation. “Without doubt more Japanese players will follow.” 

Major League Baseball’s (MLB) total revenues exceeded $11 billion in 2023, according to Fitch Ratings, while the Dodgers were appraised at $5.24 billion. Kansai University Professor Katsuhiro Miyamoto estimated that Ohtani alone contributed over $350 million to global economic activity last year, including ticket sales, travel, advertising, and merchandise.

After Ohtani’s signing, Japanese fans lined up to buy special newspaper editions, pilgrims travelled to his Hanamaki Higashi High School, his new Dodgers jersey set a 48-hour sales record, and Japanese broadcasters carried “ShoTime’s” LA press conference live, with questions ranging from his surgery to his dog’s nickname (Decoy) generating headlines. His hometown of Mizusawa issued Shohei stamps and framed postcards.

Until his press conference, Ohtani and his agent were cagey about negotiations, although his achievements demanded coverage. In a Yomiuri Shimbun survey of the top news stories of 2023, Japan’s WBC victory came top, followed by Ohtani’s MLB home run title. In contrast, the record heat wave and the discharge of treated water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant took the bottom two spots.

“Ohtani is now the symbol of the nation's standing in sports, which extends to Naomi Osaka,” said veteran sports correspondent Jason Coskrey. “Most don't have the same success as Ohtani and Osaka have enjoyed, but the pride Japanese take in Ohtani is immense.” 

Japan frequently touts its soft power, usually in entertainment, but Ohtani’s brand has become a league of its own. He earned about $40 million in endorsements in 2023, and his side hustles pre-Dodgers included Porsche, Descente, ASICS, Topps, JAL, New Balance, Boss, Seiko, and Kose. Without question, that line of corporate suitors will grow.

In 2023, a Yomiuri editorial rhetorically asked why Prime Minister Fumio Kishida couldn’t promote political policies as easily as Ohtani sold skin creams. The simple answer: Shohei throws a better pitch.  

After the Ishikawa Prefecture earthquake in January, Ohtani and a group from LA pledged $1 million to support the victims. That was not his first example of philanthropy or public awareness. He separately donated 60,000 baseball gloves to Japanese elementary schools to promote the sport.

Considering Shohei’s popularity, could he lend his name to politics or actually run for office after his contract expires at the age of 39? Most say he would rather be on the mound than on the campaign trail.

“He is popular enough that politicians could try to exploit his image and name for political gain, but he seems to try his best to remain inscrutable … and is 100% focused on baseball,” said Lakeland University Japan Professor Roger Grabowski. “I can't imagine him standing on top of a van in front of a train station giving a speech.”

That likely means at least 10 years of baseball - health and fitness permitting - and the Dodgers alone are expected to earn up to $50 million annually in Ohtani goods and licensing, according to USA Today. In Japan, every Dodgers’ game this year will likely be broadcast live. Los Angeles featured breakthrough export Hideo Nomo in the 1990s, but will now offer daily doses of Ohtani and Yamamoto, likely intensifying Japanese fandom.

Shohei’s epic 2023 began as Japanese team captain in the WBC. An earlier Japan game had already drawn a record 62 million viewers at home, but the USA-Japan final set rating peaks in North America and across the globe.

In the WBC, Ohtani hit .435, and pitched to a 1.86 ERA against the world’s best batters, but it was the final moment versus fellow national captain Mike Trout that became baseball lore. Leading 3-2, Ohtani relieved Yu Darvish, having not pitched as a closer in seven years. After a double play, he then faced Trout, considered the best non-pitching player in the last decade. Announcers called it “theater,” as the home chants of “USA! USA!” crescendoed.

After a five-pitch duel, Shohei threw a 3-2 slider, Trout whiffed, and the MVP tossed his glove and hat skyward, followed by the Japanese team charging the mound in exultation. A nation rejoiced.

His subsequent 2023 statistics were fait accompli, pitching to a 10-5 record with a 3.14 ERA, while hitting 44 home runs with a .304 batting average. Shohei was the unanimous American League MVP.

What will 2024 bring? Ohtani is among numerous Dodger All-Stars and now joined by Yamamoto. His fellow countryman had already won three consecutive Japanese MVP and pitching awards, respectively. 

Amid this steady exodus of talent across the Pacific, how will Nippon Pro Yakyu (NPB) respond? “NPB, for better or worse, is making zero effort to compete with MLB,” said Coskrey.

And Ohtani?

“If he continues his excellence on the field for a few more years, I cannot imagine any other Japanese will be more famous and admired abroad,” said LUJ’s Grabowski, adding a disclaimer. “Baseball is an international game, but it's not soccer.”

Dan Sloan joined the FCCJ in 1994. He served as the club’s president in 2004 and 2005-06, and reported for Knight-Ridder and Reuters for nearly two decades.