What it means that the new face of MLB is Asian

Shohei Ohtani, once talked about as being unmarketable, crossed the line from MLB star to “transcendental” athlete, landing in spaces not often occupied by baseball players, much less athletes from Japan.

Ohtani announced he has signed an eye-popping $700 million deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers, ending one of the most publicized baseball free agent courtships in decades.

And in the process, he became the face of a sport that has been fading into a regional interest for years and was in desperate need of a 21st century jolt.

There’s no doubt that Ohtani is now the sport’s most recognizable name, said Stan Thangaraj, the director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity, and Social Justice at Stonehill College in Massachusetts.

“The fact we’ve had someone become the face of MLB is an incredible move forward for the Asian and the Asian America community,” said Thangaraj, an authority on the impact of sports on Asian Americans and the author of “Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity.”

When word of Ohtani’s agreement with the Dodgers broke Saturday afternoon, online searches for his name immediately spiked, dominating the virtual world for hours.

And even in the following days, U.S. searches for Ohtani remained as high as those for topics as varied as the NBA’s in-season tournament, the Israel-Hamas war and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I’ve thought more about baseball in the past 48 hours than I have in the past 48 months” because of Ohtani’s signing, said Marcus Collins, who teaches marketing at the University of Michigan. “I mean, when is the last time people have talked about baseball to this fidelity?”

Ohtani could hold the key to selling MLB to overseas markets.

“Shohei Ohtani has become the most well-known international figure for American baseball and for the MLB,” Thangaraj said. “It is absolutely the case that there’s this desire for an exceptional baseball player who has such a global traction.”

Ohtani’s lure stems from a unique skill set unlike any other on the professional baseball diamond for 100 years. In all that time, MLB’s top players have fallen into two distinct categories, pitchers and hitters, with no crossover.

Ohtani, 29, has shattered that mold, performing as a high-level two-way player in a manner not seen since Babe Ruth was a dominant pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in the early 20th century.

“Ohtani is such a transcendental player, doing what no one has done since Babe Ruth,” said Mark Conrad, the director of the sports business concentration at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business. “This guy is transcendental internationally and nationally, and Los Angeles was the best spot he could have landed.”

Ohtani’s greatness is no secret, as he has won the American League MVP award two of the past three seasons for the Los Angeles Angels. Only a historic power year by Aaron Judge in 2022 kept him from winning three in a row.

And not only are the Dodgers buying Ohtani’s hitting and pitching prowess, they’re also banking a sure-fire draw. He’s consistently been a box office winner in Anaheim and opposition ballparks since arriving in North America in 2018.

Last season, he was starting pitcher and DH in 14 home games and the Angels sold an average of 37,488 tickets per date — a hike from their 32,599 home average. He did double-duty in nine road games last season for an average gate of 33,159, up from a typical Angels road draw of 31,402.

Ohtani’s work was done for the woeful Angels, who never made the playoffs in all of his seasons in Anaheim.

The question of Ohtani’s marketability once he joined a winning, high-profile team has been widely debated.

In 2021, ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith famously ranted that Ohtani, who doesn’t speak English, could never be the face of baseball.

“I don’t think it helps that the No. 1 face is a dude that needs an interpreter,” he said on the morning talk show “First Take.” 

And Conrad said advertisers and marketers might need to find creative new ways to exploit Ohtani’s name, image and likeness.

“It will be more challenging in doing that,” Conrad said, adding that Ohtani’s overall value will have to be driven by his and the team’s on-field success.

Collins said 21st century sports consumers have shown themselves to be willing to embrace athletes who might not resemble the stars of earlier generations.

“I think sport, far more than it had been, is far more international than ever before, and we’ve seen it elevate the NBA,” Collins said. 

“This is the evolution of sport,” he said. “If you want you want to be dominant offering, then you have to be international and representative of people who are not considered the archetype of said sport.”

For Ohtani and the Dodgers to fully maximize their brands, it could take multiple titles, Conrad said.

The Dodgers have been MLB’s most dominant regular season team, having won at least 61% of their games in each of their last five seasons.

But they have inexplicably fallen short in the postseason. Aside from the 60-game Covid season of 2020, the Dodgers haven’t won the World Series since 1988.

“If he leads them to the promised land with one, two, three World Series titles, he will be golden for that market and be catapulted to be a nationwide star,” Conrad said. “And you can learn English, serviceable English.”

The news of Ohtani’s signing Saturday might have been met by equal attention paid Monday night and Tuesday morning to the odd terms of the blockbuster deal.

Ohtani will be paid only $2 million a season for those 10 years, surely making him one of the lowest-paid Dodgers during that time.

The remaining $680 million will be paid over the following 10 years, meaning Ohtani is essentially giving a $680 million interest-free loan to his new employers, who would then be able to sign more talent.

Even if that odd contract plays into the Asian community-over-individual stereotype, it could still benefit Ohtani’s bottom line, Thangaraj said.

“I can see this as a strategic move to continue to bring in more talent to the Dodgers, which will only grow and expand the Ohtani brand,” he said. “He’s strategically using the stereotype, and that’s his choice.”

The only missing component to Ohtani’s brand is its lack of team success.

“Here he’s able to sell himself as part of a team, because all we’ve seen of him is his individual excellence on this crappy team,” the Angels, Thangaraj said. “This is an incredibly well-thought-out move.”