Shohei Ohtani figures to be a rookie in Major League Baseball next season, earning entry-level wages as he introduces himself to American baseball fans. But don’t read too much into his initial lack of on-field earning power.
If Ohtani can experience success on two continents, both as a pitcher with a triple-digit fastball and a power bat, he could quickly join Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Buster Posey as the highest paid product spokesmen in baseball, possibly generating record amounts of endorsement earnings.
“This is a very, very special and unique situation,” said Harlan Werner of Sports Placement Service, whose client list has included Joe Namath, Sandy Koufax and the late Muhammad Ali. “If he comes here, plays well, he’ll have a chance to be the first $10 million baseball player off the field, maybe even the first $20 million-a-year baseball player. The key is if he lives up to the hype.”
Ohtani shocked many people by quickly eliminating the Yankees from consideration after his posting period began Friday. He and his agents have reportedly invited seven teams to meet with them, most from the West Coast. The teams involved in that process are the Mariners, Giants, Dodgers, Angels, Padres, Cubs and Rangers.
As for the marketing angle, it remains to be seen how visible Ohtani wants to be. He probably wouldn’t have the same type of exposure — both in terms of media coverage and national TV opportunities — in San Diego as compared to Chicago or San Francisco, for example.
According to Forbes, no baseball player has ever generated $10 million a year in endorsement income.
Derek Jeter came close before he retired in 2014, earning a reported $9 million a year from Gatorade and other companies. Ichiro Suzuki earned about $7 million a year at one point, according to Forbes, with most of his earnings coming from Japanese companies, including the energy drink Yunker and the brokerage firm of Nikko Coridal.
But it’s been a decade since Ichiro’s earning power was at his highest, and the climate for baseball endorsements has increased greatly in recent years.
“If Ichiro was starting out in Major League Baseball right now and he did the same exact things he was doing, his earnings potential would be through the roof,” said John Fuller, whose firm Full Athlete Marketing represents Andrew McCutchen and Curtis Granderson. “The market has really changed. The approach of Major League Baseball has changed in the last five or 10 years. They’re really doing a good job of working to promote individual players and their endeavors.”
Harper represents the opportunities available to North American players. He is the center of a long-playing campaign by T-Mobile, took over the role as Gatorade spokesman from Jeter, and in 2016, he extended his relationship with Under Armour, which was reported to be the biggest equipment deal for a baseball player.
Like Harper and Bryant, Ohtani is a fresh face who could have broad appeal. He has been working on his English, which will come in handy, and already has several business relationships in Japan, including one with Asics shoes.
Ohtani, who was posted by the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters on Friday, is 23. Because he’s under 25, he’ll be treated the same way as a teenager from the Dominican Republic, meaning his signing bonus is limited to established team pools.
Some teams have been trading for international cap space, but even with that, the highest bonus available to him through the system is $3.535 million, from the Rangers. The Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Cubs are among the 12 teams who are limited to $300,000 maximum bonuses because they exceeded their international bonus pools in one of the past two years.
Ohtani could be paid as low as the Major League minimum next season. He was reportedly earning about $2 million a year in Japan, but MLB rules give him no leverage until he’s reached salary arbitration, in his third or fourth season. The team signing him will control his rights for six years, like any other player rising through its farm system.
Legend has it that Ohtani has existed on $1,000 a month as a superstar in Japan. That’s what his parents would allocate for him after depositing his paycheck in his account, according to a profile written by Sports Illustrated.
You know he’s not driven by money. If he was, he’d stay with the Fighters two more years, then head to the United States as a 25-year-old free agent, looking for $200 million or more.
If Ohtani can generate significant off-the-field earnings — and he does have a head start with some deals in Japan — he’ll offset some of the money he is sacrificing for his dream to be a two-way player in MLB. To a degree, it will be up to him and his agents — Nez Balelo of Creative Artist Agency, a firm which has marketed Tim Tebow and Posey, among many others — to determine how aggressive to be in pursuing opportunities.
Because of the grind of a 162-game season, many Major League players are satisfied with their earnings on the field. Mike Trout, for instance, has not tried to use his star power broadly. He’s done photo shoots and promotions for Nike, Subway and BodyArmor sports drink, but he remains protective of his time.
“Trout leaves a lot of money on the table,” Fuller said.
Trout, like many other players, values his personal time over his earning power, saying his priority is to prepare to play.
“There’s some endorsements you have to do, but for me, I try to minimize it,” Trout told The New York Times last year. “During the offseason, I try to get my mind off baseball as much as I can. You don’t need those endorsements and photo shoots.”
Werner has said that Ichiro could have earned an additional $50 million in endorsements if he had been more aggressive in marketing his image.
“When Ichiro came to America, he didn’t want to deal with it,” Werner said. “One time I went to [agent] Tony Attanasio with a deal where Ichiro could have made well into seven figures for a three-hour commitment. Tony said he couldn’t get Ichiro to commit to it.”
But players like Posey, Harper and Bryant have welcomed the opportunity to be linked to products. Posey’s deals include Under Armour, Toyota, DirecTV and BodyArmor, among others.
“It’s really up to the player how much they want to use their time off the field,” Fuller said. “Unlike the other [team] sports, baseball players don’t get much time off. But Major League Baseball has started to promote its players, not just its teams and the sport, and this has become a much better situation for players whose talent drives their popularity.”
Werner believes Ohtani will need a season or two to make the transition into the Major Leagues before his endorsement value will peak.
“I remember Muhammad Ali advising a young football player once,” Werner said. “He said before you can really get anyone’s attention, you have to win. If you win, people follow you; if you don’t win, you get lost.”
Phil Rogers is a columnist for our site.