Major League Baseball saw this coming—the rise of the two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani—so it started preparing.
The Los Angeles Angels All-Star has been dominating the headlines this season, especially in recent days, for both positive and controversial reasons. Ohtani is a starting pitcher, a ferocious batter, and has been compared to the great Babe Ruth.
On MLB’s All-Star break, Ohtani, 27, leads the league with 33 home runs, 70 RBI (third) and a .698 slugging percentage on top of a 4-1 record and 3.49 ERA. Ohtani headlined Monday’s Home Run Derby game at Coors Field, named the American League-starting pitcher in Tuesday’s game and led off on batting.
He seems to have the personality, charisma and even financial discipline to thrive in MLB. And Ohtani fits perfectly with the competition’s 2021 theme, “Make it Major”. It celebrates key moments for players on the pitch and brand activations off it.
Ohtani is currently baseball’s biggest attraction. And MLB wants to transform him into a superstar and join some of the league’s new faces, such as San Diego Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr., who has become the new Derek Jeter.
“We’ve had our eye on Shohei for a while,” MLB director Barbara McHugh told CNBC on Monday. “It was a lot of planning and building on his momentum.”
Ohtani on Instagram
McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president of marketing, said the league has “a number of different pieces in the works” to bring Ohtani to market, but has not disclosed any details. One of the campaigns released this past weekend – titled “It’s Sho-time!” – honors Ohtani’s early entry into MLB record books.
McHugh added that Ohtani is “achieving things on the pitch that many of us have never seen.” After just four seasons, MLB notes, “Ohtani has hit more home runs and strikeouts in the first half of the 2021 season than Babe Ruth did in the first half of his two-way seasons of 1918 and 1919.” And he became the first player to be selected as an All-Star as both a pitcher and position player.
“It plays his name and what he does – he puts on a show,” McHugh said of the promotion. “We want to make sure we capitalize on that and make it as big as possible. He is one of the most unique and transformative players in baseball history.”
Increased visibility is part of Ohtani’s marketing strategy. Sports consumers, especially in the East, more familiar with his face. MLB also posted a large image featuring the Angels phenomenon on the side of its New York City headquarters, hoping to catch eyeballs during the reopening in the country’s media capital.
“The tourists going through that part of the city, it will help strengthen Ohtani and present it to not only the local market, but all the different people (from other countries) who come there,” explains McHugh.
Social media accounts are crucial in today’s sports consumption environment. Last year, the MLB coordinated with the representatives of the Angels and Ohtani to launch its Instagram account. MLB provides Ohtani with content, which is posted and aids in fan engagement around the product.
McHugh said Ohtani’s account has grown by more than 50,000 followers. The account stands at 910,000 followers – not even close to top athletes – but if Ohtani continues to perform, that total should top one million before the season ends.
A large social media following helps athletes distribute competition-driven content and increase their online presence. And being active on the accounts can lead to greater leverage of their intellectual property. Ohtani is already valued at around $6 million in endorsements, leading to MLB, according to Forbes.
“They (MLB) should put him in every possible channel because he’s a standout, show-stopping athlete,” said Scott Rosner, director of Columbia University’s sports management program. “You don’t want him to be a best kept secret kind of athlete. But the player has to be involved in this as well.”
Networks will show more interest
Ohtani is the first Japanese-born player to participate in the Home Run competition. He started off slow, but then gave viewers a show. Ohtani tied Juan Soto of Washington Nationals with 22 home runs in the first round. He needed two swing-offs before exhaustion caught up with him and he was knocked out.
Mets first baseman Pete Alonso went on to win the league, but Ohtani helped MLB win the night with fan involvement. ESPN said the broadcast attracted an average of 7.1 million viewers, including on its ESPN2 channel. Disney’s network had 6.2 million viewers during the last Derby that aired in 2019. Ohtani’s rising stardom helped ESPN surpass 2019’s total, in a pandemic, and with sports viewer still lagging behind.
“We are not shy about presenting Shohei across all of our different platforms and (social media) accounts,” said McHugh. “It is a historic, important moment that is happening,” she added.
“He’s remarkable,” Rosner said. “The fact that he’s doing this when fans come back to the stadiums and start paying attention to baseball after the truncated 2020 season is a great thing for the game.”
If Ohtani comes close to threatening Barry Bonds’ record of 73 home runs in one season, expect MLB media partners to boost his fame as well.
Ohtani is different and that’s a good thing
Other Japanese-born players have done well in MLB and helped the league grow internationally. Examples include former Yankees players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui. Suzuki also did well off the field, but MLB players, including fellow Angels star Mike Trout, usually devalue off-the-field branding.
However, if Ohtani embraces it, brands will want to leverage his standout talent. Tony Ponturo, an accomplished sports marketing executive, noted that Ohtani’s “point of difference” is his two-way status, something he doesn’t feel like giving up.
“It gives you something to talk about that’s different from the normal players,” said Ponturo, who spent 17 years at Anheuser-Busch as vice president of global media sports marketing. “There’s so much junk from different stars – so if you can find a unique player with a unique background, it gives you something different to promote, which I think is intriguing.”
“And you need likeable, engaging dynamic players, and Ohtani checks all those boxes,” Rosner added, calling him a “once in a century kind of player.”
Ponturo said he likes MLB’s approach with Ohtani, and adding his “international flair” will help business partners grow their brand outside of the states. He also noted that the MLB needs newer personalities like Ohtani for fans to interact with as iconic players like Ruth become obsolete for the casual fans of the sport.
“The tradition of baseball was so important,” Ponturo said. “Their challenge, which I see them adapting well to, you have to move with the times or else you dry up. They have to move forward, so international players that spark interest outside the US, that’s important, and it can only be an asset. “
Ponturo agreed when asked if Ohtani could help improve MLB’s product, similar to how Steph Curry advanced professional basketball with his 3-point shooting ability. He then pointed to Curry’s crossover appeal.
“What Steph Curry did is that not only did he transition with his talents, but there was no racial issue,” Ponturo said. “He switched to young kids in the suburbs, and they didn’t see color. They saw Steph Curry. In the same way that athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, when he played, they crossed over to minority sports fans.”
If there’s one thing standing in the way, it’s that the Angels fail to win much.
The team has only made it through the postseason once in the past decade, in 2014, and is about to start this decade with another miss. The Angels are fourth, nine games behind Houston Astros in first place and five games off the wild card.
However, the team will have Ohtani under control until at least 2024. And he will make just $5.5 million in 2022 should baseball avoid a labor dispute.
If the Angels are a winning team and Ohtani’s two-way status in his career remains unchanged, “he can give the league what it has to say: ‘We are not a dead sport and we are going to build on the shoulders of these new young players, and especially a talent like this,” said Ponturo.
“I think it’s smart of baseball to market Ohtani and have a widespread balance of athletes across all ethnicities,” Ponturo added. “Their performances on the pitch speak for themselves.”
This article was updated to reflect the ESPN viewership for Monday’s event.