Appeal like Taylor Swift could make Ohtani a $700 million bargain

AP photo by Lindsey Wasson / Fans of MLB star Shohei Ohtani wait for him to walk out of the Los Angeles Angels' dugout before a game against the host Seattle Mariners on April 5.
AP photo by Lindsey Wasson / Fans of MLB star Shohei Ohtani wait for him to walk out of the Los Angeles Angels' dugout before a game against the host Seattle Mariners on April 5.

PHOENIX -- 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 the Major League Baseball two-way star's marketability, experts point to another name.

The real comparison? How about 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 29-year-old Japanese sensation's arrival into even more money for a franchise that is already one of the most popular in the game.

"He's rocketed into a stratosphere all his own," sports agent Leigh Steinberg said.

After spending his first six MLB seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, 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 after having 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 in 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 the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics this year.

The reason the Dodgers made that kind of commitment is simple: It's probably worth it. Not just because he could help them win the World Series, maybe multiple times, 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."

  photo  AP photo by Ross D. Franklin / Shohei Ohtani signs autographs for fans prior to the Los Angeles Angels' spring training game against the Chicago Cubs on March 24, 2022, in Tempe, Ariz.
 
 

The Dodgers haven't had trouble attracting eyeballs over the past several years. They're a perennially successful franchise — they finished first in the National League West Division 10 of the past 11 seasons and won 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 including Mookie Betts, Freddie Freeman and Clayton Kershaw.

But nothing compares to Ohtani.

Lewis said the spike in interest could be comparable to what happened for Major League Soccer's Inter Miami, which experienced a massive jump in online interaction, particularly on Instagram, after Messi signed this year.

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 Asics, New Balance 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.

  photo  AP photo by Eugene Hoshiko / A staff member distributes an extra edition of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper reporting on Shohei Ohtani's decision to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday in Tokyo. Ohtani agreed to an MLB-record $700 million, 10-year contract with the Dodgers on Saturday.
 
 

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 Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, Mahomes' teammate.

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 while 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, which only seems to add intrigue.

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

Monster homers. Potential dominance on the mound. Championships. Even more fans.

It's a Hollywood script the Dodgers hope 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."

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