Jul 22, 2021 - Sports

The business of Shohei Ohtani

Illustration of Ohtani sitting on a stack of bills.

Photo illustration: Trent Joaquin. Photo: Thearon W. Henderson /Getty Images

Shohei Ohtani is an MVP candidate on the field, and his new exclusive memorabilia deal with Fanatics reflects his exploding off-field value.

By the numbers: Ohtani's $6 million in annual endorsements is already tops in MLB, per Forbes, thanks to his two-way stardom and popularity in two of the world's biggest markets.

  • Merchandise: 28% of All-Star sales last week in Denver comprised Ohtani merchandise.
  • Trading cards: Through mid-June, his trading card value had the highest year-to-date return of any athlete.
  • Social media: He's one of just a handful of active MLB players with over 1 million Instagram followers.

Between the lines: Ohtani's perch atop MLB's endorsement pecking order could be even higher, but he's known to be über-conscious of limiting any distractions that might get in the way of baseball.

  • "I believe Ohtani could make as much money as Ichiro or Matsuyama if he wants to," says Tomoya Suzuki, president of Japanese sports marketing firm Trans Insight Corporation.
  • "[The] only problem is he is not willing to do so, and he is very, very picky in terms of endorsements."

The state of play: International stars with near-universal approval ratings are having a moment right now, with Naomi Osaka becoming the highest-paid female athlete ever and Giannis Antetokounmpo delivering the Bucks' first NBA title in 50 years.

  • Like Ohtani, Osaka and Antetokounmpo are transcendent athletes in their prime with global fanbases that raise the ceiling on their earning potential.
  • But unlike Ohtani, they don't play baseball, where top athletes simply don't command the same marketing dollars as more star-driven sports. LeBron James made $65 million last year in endorsements; no baseball player in the past decade has topped $9 million annually.

The big picture: Ohtani could be exactly the star MLB needs, with his celebrity acting as a gateway for mainstream money and eyeballs.

  • Ken Griffey Jr. was that guy 25 years ago. He got the video game, the shoes and the presidential campaign, but it never extended to the rest of the sport because his equally-marketable contemporaries soon lost their luster amid the steroid scandal.
  • Ohtani, on the other hand, leads a class of vibrant, young superstars like Juan Soto and the three juniors. Sponsors and casual fans drawn to MLB by Ohtani are more likely to stick around when they see he's far from the only reason to invest in the game.

The bottom line: The Sho's just getting started.

Go deeper