NEW YORK – Japanese baseball players are taught to keep a low profile and let their performances be known. Yet, for more than a decade, Shohei Ohtani has been ready to make waves.
In high school, he wanted to become the first Japanese player to go straight to the major leagues. When he debuted as a professional in Japan, he placed an emphasis on playing in the field and pitching, which was rarely done. He continued this feat after joining the Los Angeles Angels six seasons ago, winning two Most Valuable Player awards as well as the nickname of Showtime and Japan’s Babe Ruth.
Now, Ohtani, 29, has broken another barrier by signing a record 10-year, US$700 million (S$940.9 million) contract to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The deal, which was announced on December 9, was as lucrative as his tape measure home runs and blistering fastball: US$275 million, more than the amount his Angels teammate Mike Trout received in 2019; and US$10 million more per year than Damian Lillard of the National Basketball Association’s Milwaukee Bucks, who had the highest annual salary in American pro sports. It also eclipses the US$50 million to US$60 million that Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi is earning each year playing for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami.
Ohtani’s belt-busting contract highlights the often confusing economics of baseball and professional sports more broadly, where networks and companies spend millions, even billions of dollars to connect their businesses to players and teams. whose success may be short-lived.
Japanese players from Hideo Nomo to Ichiro Suzuki to Hideki Matsui proved to be reliable signings. But Ohtani’s record payday is a different story altogether. It’s proof that Japanese players are not only very good, but among the best – and most popular – in the rapidly growing international game.
“The number of Japanese players coming to the United States is increasing, but this takes it to a different level,” said Vince Gennaro, who was an advisor to several major league teams and now runs the sports business program at New York University. ,
Ohtani isn’t the only highly touted Japanese star this off-season. Yoshinobu Yamamoto, 25, has been the best pitcher in Japanese baseball for the past three seasons and is being courted by the New York Yankees, New York Mets and other clubs. Shota Imanaga, who pitched against Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, and Yuki Matsui of the Rakuten Golden Eagles, two other left-handed pitchers, are also in the market.
But teams evaluating their talent face the same challenges that come with American players because running a professional sports team is not like running an airline or a supermarket. Supply and demand, and profit and loss are moving targets, not fixed positions. The value of a player’s contract is often based on a pile of statistics estimating whether his success will continue unhindered by age, injury or bad luck.
Although promoted as the ultimate two-way player, Ohtani is unlikely to pitch in 2024 because of an elbow injury he suffered last season. Of course, he’s still a formidable hitter, but his Bunyanesque reputation comes from his skill both at the plate and on the mound.
The Dodgers, who are paying Ohtani the equivalent of the GDP of a small Pacific nation, will return only a fraction of what they are paying him to remain in the line-up. The Dodgers have led the league in attendance in 10 of the last 11 seasons, so there are only so many tickets they can sell. It is also difficult to raise ticket prices as this may drive out average fans.
Japanese companies, having no doubt that Ohtani’s games would be broadcast live in Japan, would rush to purchase signage at Dodger Stadium. It is unclear how much more they would be willing to pay compared to an American company. The Dodgers keep all revenue from the sale of jerseys, caps and other merchandise in their home market, but sales of gear sold elsewhere must be shared among all 30 MLB teams.
And although the Dodgers already have a very lucrative local television deal, the league controls national and international media deals, including permission to show games in Japan.
Nevertheless, Ohtani’s achievements are undeniable, especially in his home country. Baseball has been the national sport in Japan for more than a century, and for most of that time, the Japanese have used the game to measure themselves against the United States. For decades, American teams led by Ruth and many others demolished their hosts. But with time the competition has become equal.
However, when Japanese players succeeded in the major leagues, skeptics still found the cause important. Nomo joined the Dodgers as a pitcher in 1995 and was voted Rookie of the Year, but critics say he succeeded because he had an unorthodox, stop-motion delivery. When Suzuki set a major league record with 262 hits in a season in 2004, critics said he did so primarily by hitting ground balls and line drives. Hideki Matsui was a top slugger in Japan, but became an ordinary power hitter on the Yankees.
However, Ohtani is beating the Americans on their own terms. Robert Whiting, who has written several books on baseball in Japan, including “You Gotta Have Wa”, said, “He could hit home runs 500 feet and throw the ball 100 miles an hour, and he was faster than most Americans. Big and strong.”