Ohtani the International Sensation
Pitching and hitting like Ohtani does is generational. Nobody will dispute that. But there is a third aspect of Ohtani that many teams, such as the Cardinals, are likely underestimating. And that’s the value Ohtani will bring internationally. Despite baseball fandom being largely regionalized in America, Ohtani’s stardom transcends that, and he will bring in an entirely new demographic of Cardinals fans in Japan. That value is hard to quantify, and it’s likely no player has ever had the influence that Ohtani does internationally.
As a Cardinals fan, this is blasphemous to say, but Cardinals fans are not “the best fans in baseball.” Cardinals fans are the best fans in MLB. Japanese baseball fans are the best fans in baseball. A group stage game in the 2023 World Baseball Classic between Korea and Japan drew 62 million viewers alone, more than the most watched World Series game ever and putting to shame the 11.8 million viewer average for the 2022 World Series between the Astros and Phillies. While the championship game between the USA and Japan (which was played at 8 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in Japan) didn’t draw as much viewership in Japan, 97% of TVs in Japan were still tuned in. Ratings for every Samurai Japan game in 2023 compared to that of the Super Bowl. And who was front and center? None other than Shohei Ohtani.
It’s hard to quantify what Ohtani means to the country of Japan, but it far transcends what we’ve seen for any baseball player in recent memory, maybe ever. Ohtani’s likeness is on billboards all over Japan, and there’s even a Japanese TV station that broadcasts Angels games but keeps the camera on Ohtani at all times. When Ohtani was named American League MVP in 2021, the Tokyo Tower was lit in colors reminiscent of the Halo at Angel Stadium. No current American athlete can compare to what Ohtani means to Japan. His influence mirrors that of Lionel Messi in Argentina or Cristiano Ronaldo in Portugal. Lars Nootbaar phrased it best: “His face is everywhere. He’s Michael Jordan times the Beatles in Japan.”
With Ohtani’s prominence in Japan also comes the prominence of the Los Angeles Angels. Any Major League Baseball merchandise found in Japan is likely to be Angels gear. Fans in Japan represent the Angels everywhere they go. If the Yankees and Dodgers are the most recognizable teams for sports fans in the US, the Angels stand with them in terms of international recognizability. Angel Stadium is plastered with sponsorships for Japanese companies, as there are probably far more Angels fans living in Japan than in Anaheim. Whichever team lands Ohtani this offseason not only lands the best baseball player in the world but also more international influence than they could imagine.
From a business standpoint, Ohtani in St. Louis would be a dream for ownership. With the ability to garner lucrative brand deals from overseas, and sell merchandise to an entirely new demographic of fans, the Cardinals would certainly become a “big-market team.” As long as Ohtani maintains his current level of play in St. Louis, it’s hard to imagine the Cardinals wouldn’t instantly become among the most valuable franchises alongside the Yankees and Dodgers. In the long-term, if Ohtani were to win a World Series and retire in a Cardinals uniform, the Cardinals’ brand and recognizability would flourish long after his career is over.