Shohei Ohtani a ‘once in a century’ player, and MLB has big plans for him

Shohei Ohtani # 17 of the Los Angeles Angels celebrates in the dugout after hitting 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 Sport | Getty Images

Major League Baseball saw it coming – the rise of the two-way phenomenon Shohei Ohtani – so he started to prepare.

The Los Angeles Angels All-Star has dominated sports headlines this season, especially in recent days, for both positive and controversial reasons. Ohtani is a starting pitcher, a fierce hitter, and is compared to the great Babe Ruth.

At the MLB All-Star break, Ohtani, 27, leads the league with 33 homers, 70 RBIs (third) and 0.698 slugging percentage in addition to a 4-1 record and an ERA of 3.49. Ohtani was the headliner in Monday’s Home Run Derby contest at Coors Field, named the American League starting pitcher in Tuesday’s game, and the lead stick in strikes.

He seems to have the personality, charisma, and even the financial discipline to thrive in MLB. And Ohtani fits perfectly with the league’s 2021 theme, “Make it Major.” It celebrates great moments for players on the pitch and brand activations off the pitch.

Ohtani is currently baseball’s biggest attraction. And MLB wants to turn him into a superstar, joining 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 quite some time now,” MLB manager Barbara McHugh told CNBC on Monday. “It’s been a lot of planning and building on her momentum.”

Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels is 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 disclose details. One of the campaigns that ran last weekend – titled “It’s Sho Time! – honors Ohtani’s early entry into the MLB record books.

McHugh added that Ohtani “is doing things on the pitch that many of us have never seen.” After just four seasons, notes the MLB, “Ohtani hit more homers and knocked out more hitters 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 a pitcher and positional player.

“It showcases 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 important as possible. He was one of the most unique and transformational players in baseball history.”

Increased visibility is part of Ohtani’s marketing strategy. Make sports consumers, especially those in the East, know his face better. MLB has also placed a large image depicting the phenomenon of angels on the side of its New York headquarters, for example, in hopes of attracting attention when it reopens in the nation’s media capital.

“Tourists passing through this part of town will help amplify and introduce Ohtani not only to the local market, but to all the different people (from other countries) that pass by,” McHugh explained.

Signage featuring Shohei Ohtani is displayed outside MLB headquarters in New York City.

Marie DeCicco | MLB Photos

Social media accounts are essential in today’s sports consumer environment. Last year, MLB coordinated with representatives for Angels and Ohtani to launch their Instagram account. MLB provides content for Ohtani, which is published and contributes to fan engagement around his product.

McHugh said Ohtani’s account has grown by more than 50,000 subscribers. The count stands at 910,000 subscribers – not yet close to top athletes – but if Ohtani continues to perform, that total is expected to exceed one million before the end of the season.

Great social media following helps athletes deliver league-focused content and increase their online presence. And being active on the accounts can lead to more exploitation of their intellectual property. It is already estimated that Ohtani makes around $ 6 million in endorsements, which leads MLB, according to Forbes.

“They (MLB) have to get him out on every channel they can because he’s an athlete who gets the attention and stops the show,” said Scott Rosner, director of the Columbia University Sports Management Program. “You don’t want him to be the best-kept kind of secret athlete. But the player also has to cooperate in all of this.”

Networks will show more interest

Ohtani is the first player of Japanese descent to participate in the Home Run competition. He started off slow but then put on a show for viewers. Ohtani tied Juan Soto of the Washington Nationals with 22 homers in the first round. He needed two swing-offs before exhaustion caught up with him and he was eliminated.

Mets first baseman Pete Alonso ultimately won the competition, but Ohtani helped MLB win the night through the engagement.

On Tuesday afternoon, ESPN’s audience measurements were not yet available. But the key figure for the Disney-owned network is 6.2 million viewers – the total number of viewers from the last Derby that aired in 2019. If ESPN exceeds that total in the event of a pandemic and the number of sports viewers is still on the line. lagging behind is positive. And he can attribute any increase to the rising stardom of Ohtani.

“We don’t hesitate to feature Shohei on all of our different platforms and (social media) accounts,” McHugh said. “It is a historic, major moment that is happening,” she added.

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

If Ohtani is on the verge of threatening Barry Bonds’ record of 73 homers in a single season, expect MLB media partners to increase his exposure as well.

Shohei Ohtani # 17 of the Los Angeles Angels fields 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 players born in Japan prospered in MLB and contributed to the league’s growth internationally. Examples include former players like Ichiro Suzuki, Hideo Nomo, and Hideki Matsui of the Yankees. Suzuki has done well off the field as well, but MLB players, including Angels star Mike Trout, typically devalue the mark off the field.

If Ohtani kisses her, however, brands will want to take advantage of her exceptional talent. Longtime sports marketing director Tony Ponturo has noted that Ohtani’s “point of difference” is his two-way status, something he shows no desire to give up.

“It gives you something to say that is different from normal players,” said Ponturo, who spent 17 years at Anheuser-Busch as vice president of global sports media marketing. “There are so many different stars – so if you can find a single player with a unique background it gives you something different from (promoting), which I think is intriguing.”

“And you need dynamic, engaging and engaging players, and Ohtani ticks all of those boxes,” Rosner added, calling him a “once-in-a-century genre”.

Ponturo said he liked the MLB approach with Ohtani, adding that his “international flair” would help partner companies grow their brand beyond the United States. He also noted that MLB needs new personalities like Ohtani for fans to identify with, as iconic players like Ruth become obsolete for casual fans of the sport.

“The tradition of baseball was so important,” Ponturo said. “Their challenge, which I see them adapting to well, you have to evolve over time, otherwise you will dry up. They have to move forward, so international players are generating interest beyond the United States, it’s important, and it can be just an asset. “

Ponturo agreed when asked if Ohtani could help improve MLB’s product, in the same way Steph Curry advanced professional basketball with his 3-point shooting talent. He then pointed to Curry’s cross-appeal.

“What Steph Curry did was he not only crossed his talents but there was no racial issue,” Ponturo said. “He went to young suburban kids and they didn’t see any color. They saw Steph Curry. Just like athletes like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, when he was playing they went to minority sports fans. “

If there is one obstacle, it is the Angels’ failure to win big.

The team has only made the playoffs once in the past decade, in 2014, and is set to start that decade with another dud. The Angels sit fourth, nine games behind the Houston Astros, first, and five games outside the wild card.

The team does, however, have Ohtani under control until at least 2024. And he will only earn $ 5.5 million in 2022, if baseball avoids a labor dispute.

If the Angels are a winning team and Ohtani’s two-way status remains unchanged over the course of his career, “he can give the league what it needs to say, ‘We are not a dead sport, and we are going to lean on the shoulders of these new young players, and in particular of a talent like this, ”said Ponturo.

“I think it’s smart for baseball to market Ohtani and have a generalized balance of athletes from all ethnicities,” Ponturo added. “Their performance on the pitch will speak for itself.”

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