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The Dodgers Gave Shohei Ohtani $700 Million to Hit and Pitch — but Also Because He Can Sell

AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko
A person reads an extra edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reporting on Shohei Ohtani to move to the Los Angeles Dodgers Sunday, Dec. 10, 2023, in Tokyo.

PHOENIX (AP) — Shohei Ohtani’s jaw-dropping $700 million, 10-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers has some similarities to other contracts for the world’s biggest sports stars, including soccer icons Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, along with NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

In terms of his marketability, experts point to another name.

The real comparison? Try Taylor Swift.

The global music sensation’s broad appeal — one that bridges the gap between generations and expands to other countries — is an extremely rare phenomenon that Ohtani shares. There’s no doubt the Dodgers hope they can leverage the Japanese star’ s arrival into even more money for a franchise that is already one of the most popular in Major League Baseball.

“He’s rocketed into a stratosphere all his own,” sports agent Leigh Steinberg said.

Ohtani was expected to sign the biggest deal in MLB history as a free agent this offseason and didn’t disappoint. He’s the sport’s best two-way player ever — not even Babe Ruth hit and pitched at the same time so effectively — and though he won’t be able to pitch in 2024 following Tommy John surgery, he should provide plenty of value at the plate before he returns to the mound in 2025.

But the $700 million price tag was more than most imagined.

His $70 million average salary is 62% above the previous high of about $43.3 million, shared by pitchers Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander with deals they struck with the New York Mets. Ohtani’s average salary nearly doubles the roughly $42.3 million he earned over six seasons with the Angels. It also exceeds the entire payrolls of Baltimore and Oakland this year.

The reason the Dodgers made that kind of commitment is simple: It’s probably worth it. Not just because he could help win World Series, but because of the value he brings even if he doesn’t.

“If Ohtani is marketed right, he’s a globally iconic player,” said Mike Lewis, a professor of marketing at Emory University who specializes in sports business. “It could be like something from Formula One, where you’ve got the attention of the whole world. Baseball has sometimes struggled to gain national attention, but he’s the kind of guy who attacts millions of eyeballs, and not just from the U.S.”

The Dodgers haven’t had trouble attracting eyeballs over the past several years. They’re a perennially successful franchise — winning the NL West 10 of the past 11 seasons and the World Series in 2020 — and averaged more than 47,000 fans per game last year, best in the sport. They’ve doled out big money to stars like Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts and Clayton Kershaw.

But nothing compares to Ohtani.

Lewis — the Emory professor — said the spike in interest could be comparable to Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami, which saw a massive jump in online interaction, particularly on Instagram, after Messi signed.

As of Sunday morning, the Dodgers’ Instagram account had 3.2 million followers. Ohtani on his own has 6.3 million.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg. The average fan understands that Ohtani will generate revenue with more tickets, concessions and jerseys sold.

But no player drives more interest internationally, especially in Ohtani’s native Japan, with a baseball-obsessed population of 126 million. Ohtani already has a deep group of sponsors targeting audiences on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, including New Balance, ASICS and Porsche Japan.

For the Dodgers, his international appeal means more companies in the U.S. and abroad are interested in advertising — Japanese companies frequently paid for prime ad spaces around Angel Stadium when Ohtani was in Anaheim. That alone brings a cascade of cash that could pay off a significant portion of Ohtani’s deal.

For the creative folks in the advertising industry, the possibilities are almost endless.

That’s where the Swift comparisons come into play.

Swift was a dominant force in 2023, partly because of “The Eras Tour” that sold out shows from coast to coast. But then she took it to the next level, developing a film of that tour that brought in millions of more fans to theaters throughout the country. Fans obsess over her every move on social media, including her budding romance with NFL star Travis Kelce.

Ohtani is potentially the same type of superstar. His free agency generated the sort of online sleuthing and hysteria usually associated with the Swifties, with fans frantically tracking private plane movements and alleged sightings trying ascertain which of his suitors would land Ohtani. Like Swift, Ohtani also starred a documentary this year — his was produced by ESPN.

There’s also the fact that among athletes, he’s fairly low risk. He hasn’t had a hint of controversy through his career, producing a squeaky clean image that any potential advertiser can get behind. In fact, fans know surprisingly little about his personal life — something that only seems to add intrigue.

Steinberg — the retired agent — said that he’s certain every MLB team interested in Ohtani did a revenue forecast to estimate the amount of money Ohtani would generate, even before he touches the field. If the Dodgers were willing to pay $700 million to land him, he’s confident they did their homework.

Monster homers. Potential dominance on the mound. It’s a Hollywood script that the Dodgers are hoping comes true.

“He’s handsome and he’s a huge box office draw,” Steinberg said. “There are very few players who can match that. He has appeal to all.”