The latest sign of Shohei Ohtani’s importance to Major League Baseball came in the form of a rule change passed two weeks ago. Starting this season, pitchers who also serve as the designated hitter will no longer be forced to exit the lineup when they are pulled from the game. Immediately, it was informally dubbed the “Shohei Ohtani Rule,” and the motivation is clear: MLB wants the Los Angeles Angels’ two-way superstar in the spotlight as much as possible.
Who could blame them? Last season, Ohtani was must-see TV, his fiery fastballs and towering home runs proving him worthy of the Babe Ruth comparisons he’s gotten since the start of his MLB career in 2018. He earned All-Star honors as both a batter and a pitcher in 2021 and was unanimously named American League MVP.
Now, the 27-year-old, who hails from Ōshū in the Iwate Prefecture of northern Japan, is reaping the financial rewards of global stardom. Forbes estimates that Ohtani will earn $20 million off the field in 2022 before taxes and agents’ fees, a sum that more than triples his endorsement number from a year ago and beats MLB’s best mark in at least a decade, the $9 million that Derek Jeter earned from 2012 to 2014. It’s also roughly three times the $6.5 million that 2022’s next-highest off-field earner, Philadelphia Phillies slugger Bryce Harper, is raking in.
Amazingly, it’s still not enough to land Ohtani on Forbes’ annual list of MLB’s highest-paid players because he is earning just $5.5 million on the field this season. (The league’s top earner overall is New York Mets hurler Max Scherzer, who is making $58.3 million on the field and $1 million off.) But with his good looks and affable demeanor, Ohtani has proved to be a marketing hit on both sides of the Pacific, with a group of 15 partnerships that include Fanatics, Topps and Panini in the U.S. and Asics, Descente and Hugo Boss in Japan. His recent success has ushered in a wave of deal renewals among his partners, as well as valuable new deals with FTX, Kowa, Mitsubishi Bank and Salesforce. And in January, he was named the cover athlete of Sony’s MLB The Show 22 video game.
“The fact that he is a household name, not only in Japan but here, has really drawn a lot of attention, and I think that’s what corporate sponsors like to see,” says Willie Banks, president of multinational sports marketing company HSJ Inc. “Japan is a very cautious country, and [Japanese brands] do a lot of research and a lot of digging to make sure that the people they’re involved with are top-line people that cross boundaries. And that is where I think Ohtani has been able to be a great representative.”
Ohtani’s place among—and perhaps atop—a select group of Japanese superstar athletes almost guarantees him a lucrative business as a pitchman. The easiest comparison might be another baseball player: Seattle Mariners legend Ichiro Suzuki, who earned $7 million off the field in 2012 to complement his $17 million playing salary. But there is also tennis star Naomi Osaka, who pulled in an astounding $55 million off the court in 2021, and pro golfer Hideki Matsuyama, whose endorsements are poised to soar past $20 million in the wake of his Masters victory last year.
In Japan, Ohtani’s face is plastered on billboards and on his sponsors’ websites. He’s a fixture on TV and on the back page of newspapers. He’s not just a baseball star; he’s a full-fledged celebrity.
“Tom Brady is a big name for everyone, but he’s well liked only for the teams that he plays on. Everyone else hates him,” Banks says. “Whereas here’s a guy [in Ohtani] who’s loved by the whole country and is giving pride to the country because he’s playing internationally.”
Despite a recent downturn in the Japanese economy—the Nikkei 225 has fallen more than 9% since its five-year peak in September—Ohtani’s stardom has pushed his going rate north of $1 million per deal on average, says Tomoya Suzuki, founder and president of the Japan-focused sports marketing firm Trans Insight Corporation. He adds that while Japanese companies have tended toward quarterly deals with athletes, Ohtani has created such demand that he can choose to accept only long-term deals of 12 months or more.
As Ohtani’s exposure continues to grow, more companies will jump on, says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, director of the sports management program at George Washington University. But his financial future ties directly to whether he can keep up his Ruthian performance on the field, which is no simple task. Ohtani has struggled with injuries in the past—he was unable to pitch in 2019 because of a torn ligament in his elbow—and of the 32 players to win multiple MVP Awards in major league history, only 13 have done it in back-to-back years. It’s also important to note that, unlike individual sport athletes like Osaka and Matsuyama, Ohtani has only so much time to dedicate to his partners during MLB’s rigorous regular-season schedule.
But in the meantime, Ohtani’s skyrocketing popularity continues to pay dividends, even for those in his orbit. Thanks to their star, the Angels have landed in-stadium sponsorships from Japanese companies like Funai Electric Co. and JAE.
And if Ohtani can keep producing, his ascent will continue, especially back home.
“If you send someone over and they become a huge star like Ichiro or Ohtani, it’s like winning a gold medal in the Olympic Games,” Banks says of the pride Japan takes in its athletes. “It’s huge for them.”