December 1, 2023

Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani # 17 celebrates in the dugout after scoring a solo home run in the third inning against the Seattle Mariners at T-Mobile Park on July 9, 2021 in Seattle, Washington.

Abbie Parr | Getty Images Sports | Getty Images

Major League Baseball saw this coming – the rise of the two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani – and began to prepare.

The Los Angeles Angels All-Star has dominated the sport’s headlines this season, especially in the past few days, for both positive and controversial reasons. Ohtani is a starting pitcher, a wild batsman and is compared to the great Babe Ruth.

At the MLB’s all-star break, Ohtani, 27, leads the league with 33 home runs, 70 RBI (third) and a .698 slugging percentage in addition to a 4-1 record and 3.49 ERA. Ohtani headlined Monday’s home run derby competition at Coors Field, was named the American League starting pitcher in Tuesday’s game, and the lead-off bat when hitting.

He seems to have the personality, charisma, and even financial discipline to succeed in MLB. And Ohtani fits perfectly with the 2021 theme of the “Make it Major” league. It celebrates important moments for players on the field and brand activations away from it.

Ohtani is currently the biggest draw in baseball. And MLB wants to turn him into a superstar and join some of the league’s new faces, like 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 manager Barbara McHugh told CNBC on Monday. “There was a lot of planning and building on its dynamic.”

Los Angeles Angels’ Shohei Ohtani can be seen during the 2021 T-Mobile Home Run Derby at Coors Field on Monday July 12, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.

Daniel Shirey | Major League Baseball | Getty Images

Ohtani on Instagram

McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president of marketing, said the league had “a number of different pieces in the works” to market Ohtani but did not provide details. One of the campaigns published last weekend is entitled “It’s Sho-time!” – Honors Ohtani’s early entry into the MLB record books.

McHugh added that Ohtani “does things in the field that many of us have never seen”. After just four seasons, MLB states: “Ohtani hit more home runs and more punches 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 named an All-Star as both a pitcher and a positional player.

“It plays with his name and what he’s doing – he’s making a show,” McHugh said of the promotion. “We want to make sure we capitalize on it and make it as big as possible. He was one of the most unique and transformative players in baseball history.”

Increased visibility is part of the strategy for marketing Ohtani. Make sports consumers more familiar with your face, especially in the East. For example, MLB also placed a large picture depicting the Engels phenomenon on the side of its New York City headquarters in hopes of attracting attention during the reopening in the country’s media capital.

“The tourists who pass through this part of the city will reinforce and showcase Ohtani not only in the local market, but also with all the different people (from other countries) passing through,” said McHugh.

Shohei Ohtani signs are displayed outside the MLB headquarters in New York.

Mary DeCicco | MLB photos

Social media accounts are central in today’s sports consumption environment. Last year the MLB coordinated with representatives from Angels and Ohtani to launch his Instagram account. MLB provides Ohtani with content that is posted and helps with fan engagement around his product.

McHugh said Ohtani’s account had grown by more than 50,000 followers. The account is at 910,000 followers – not yet close to top athletes – but if Ohtani continues to perform, that total should exceed a million before the season ends.

A large fan base on social media helps athletes distribute league-driven content and increase their online presence. And activity on the accounts can lead to greater use of their intellectual property. According to Forbes, Ohtani is already estimated to bring in about $ 6 million in endorsements, which is what MLB leads.

“You (MLB) need to get him out on all kinds of channels because he’s an attention-grabbing, high profile athlete,” said Scott Rosner, director of Columbia University’s sports management program. “They don’t want him to be a best-kept, secret athlete. But the player has to cooperate on all of that too.”

Networks will show more interest

Ohtani is the first Japanese-born player to participate in the home run competition. It started slowly, but then put on a show for the audience. Ohtani joined Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals with 22 first-round home runs. It took him two swing-offs before exhaustion caught up and he was eliminated.

Met’s first baseman Pete Alonso eventually won the competition, but Ohtani did fanfare to help MLB win the night. ESPN said the television show drew an average of 7.1 million viewers, including on its ESPN2 channel. Disney’s own network had 6.2 million viewers during the last derby, which aired in 2019. Ohtani’s rising fame helped ESPN top its 2019 total in a pandemic, and sports viewers still lagged behind.

“We’re not afraid to showcase Shohei on all of our different platforms and (social media) accounts,” said McHugh. “It’s a historic, important moment that is happening,” she added.

“He’s remarkable,” said Rosner. “The fact that he does so when fans come back to the stadiums after the shortened 2020 season and start watching baseball is a great thing for the game.”

If Ohtani is close to jeopardizing Barry Bonds’ record of 73 home runs in a single season, expect MLB media partners to raise his profile too.

Shohei Ohtani # 17 of the Los Angeles Angels plays during the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Angels at Angel Stadium on Tuesday July 6, 2021 in Anaheim, California.

Daniel Shirey | Major League Baseball | Getty Images

Ohtani is different and that’s a good thing

Other Japanese-born players are successful in MLB and have helped expand the league internationally. Examples include former players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo and Hideki Matsui from Yankees. Suzuki did well off the field too, but MLB players, including Angels star Mike Trout, usually dismiss the off-field branding.

However, should Ohtani accept it, brands will want to harness his outstanding talent. Longtime sports marketing manager Tony Ponturo noted that Ohtani’s “point of difference” is his mutual status, which he does not want to give up.

“It gives you something to tell that is different from normal players,” said Ponturo, who was Vice President of Global Media Sports Marketing at Anheuser-Busch for 17 years. “There’s so much clutter with different stars – so when you find a unique player with a unique background, you’re doing something other than (promoting) what I find fascinating.”

“And you need personable, committed, dynamic players, and Ohtani checks all of those boxes,” added Rosner, calling him a “one-off player of the century”.

Ponturo said he likes MLB’s approach to Ohtani, adding that his “international flair” will help corporate partners expand their brand across states. He also noted that the MLB needs newer personalities like Ohtani that fans can relate to as iconic players like Ruth are out of date for the sport’s casual fans.

“The baseball tradition was so important,” said Ponturo. “Your challenge, which I think they are preparing well for, has to move with the times or it will dry up. You have to move forward so that international players arouse interest beyond the US, that is important and that can” only enrich be.”

Ponturo agreed when asked if Ohtani could help improve MLB’s product, much like Steph Curry brought professional basketball forward with his 3-point shooting talent. Then he pointed out Curry’s crossover appeal.

“What Steph Curry has done is that not only is he oversaturated with his talents, but that there have been no racial issues either,” said Ponturo. “He went to young kids in the suburbs and they saw no color. They saw Steph Curry. As well as athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning when he was playing, they switched to minority sports fans.”

If something stands in the way, it is the angels’ failure to win big.

The team has only made the postseason once in the last decade, in 2014, and is about to start this decade with another failure. The Angels are in fourth place, nine games behind the first-placed Houston Astros and five games from the wild card.

However, the team will have Ohtani under control until at least 2024. And he will only make $ 5.5 million in 2022 if baseball avoids a labor dispute.

Should the Angels make a winning team and Ohtani’s two-way status remain unchanged in his career, “he can give the league what to say: ‘We are not a dead sport and we will build on the shoulders of these new young players and especially of such a talent, ‘”said Ponturo.

“I think it’s wise of baseball to market Ohtani and have a wide balance of athletes of all races,” added Ponturo. “Your performance in the field will speak for itself.”

This article has been updated to reflect the ESPN viewers for Monday’s event.