NEW YORK – Japanese baseball players are taught to keep a low profile and let their performances do the talking. Yet, for more than a decade, Shohei Ohtani has been willing 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 instead, he insisted on playing the field and pitching, something rarely done. He continued the feat after joining the Los Angeles Angels six seasons ago, winning two Most Valuable Player awards as well as the nicknames Shotime and Japan’s Babe Ruth.
Now, Ohtani, 29, has broken another barrier, signing a record 10-year, US$700 million (S$940.9 million) contract to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The deal, announced on Dec 9, was as eye-popping as his tape measure home runs and blazing fastball: more than US$275 million above what 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 that US$50 million to US$60 million that Argentinian soccer star Lionel Messi is earning each year to play for Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami.
Ohtani’s belt-busting contract highlights the often-confounding economics of baseball and professional sports more broadly, where networks and companies spend hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars to link their businesses to players and teams whose success can be ephemeral.
Japanese players from Hideo Nomo to Ichiro Suzuki to Hideki Matsui proved to be bankable signings. But Ohtani’s record payday is something entirely different. It is evidence that Japanese players aren’t just very good but are among the best – and most popular – in an increasingly international game.
“The number of Japanese players coming to the United States has been building, but this takes it to a whole other level,” said Vince Gennaro, who was a consultant to several major league teams and now runs the sports business programs at New York University.
Ohtani is not the only highly coveted 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, the 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, are two other left-handed pitchers also on the market.
But teams evaluating their talent face the same challenges they do with American players because running a professional sports team is not like running an airline or supermarket. Supply and demand, and profits and losses are moving targets, not fixed positions. The value of a player’s contract is often based on a grab bag of statistics coupled with hunches that his or her success will continue unimpeded 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 he injured last season. He’s still a formidable hitter, of course, but his Bunyanesque reputation comes from his prowess both at the plate and on the mound.
The Dodgers, who are paying Ohtani the equivalent of the gross domestic product of a small Pacific nation, will make back only a fraction of what they’re paying him to stay in the line-up. The Dodgers have led the league in attendance 10 of the past 11 seasons, so there are only so many more tickets they can sell. Raising ticket prices is also tricky because it could push out average fans.
Japanese companies, no doubt aware that Ohtani’s games will be broadcast live in Japan, will rush to buy signage at Dodger Stadium. How much more they might be willing to pay than an American company is unclear. The Dodgers keep all the revenue from the sale of jerseys, caps and other merchandise in their home market, but sales of gear sold elsewhere must be shared with 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 the one that allows games to be shown in Japan.
Still, Ohtani’s achievements are undeniable, particularly 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 over time, the competition has evened.
Even as Japanese players succeeded in the major leagues, however, sceptics found reason to be critical. Nomo joined the Dodgers as a pitcher in 1995 and was voted Rookie of the Year, but cynics said he succeeded because he had an unorthodox, stop-motion delivery. When Suzuki set a major league record in 2004 with 262 hits in a season, critics said he did so primarily by hitting ground balls and line drives. Hideki Matsui was a top slugger in Japan, but turned out to be an ordinary power hitter on the Yankees.
Ohtani, though, is beating the Americans on their own terms. “He can hit a home run 500 feet and throw a ball 100 miles per hour, and he’s bigger and stronger than most Americans,” said Robert Whiting, who has written several books on baseball in Japan, including “You Gotta Have Wa.”