‘Sho’ Him the Money: Sports prof says an Ohtani signing would be worth Jays’ overpay

A so-called “overpay” for top free agent Shohei Ohtani would be worth it for the Toronto Blue Jays considering all the extra benefits such a signing would create, a Canadian sports management associate professor said.

“The amount of attention, not just from American media but from international media — specifically Japanese media — (would be) massive,” said Mike Naraine of Brock University. “I call it the Ichiro effect. When you look at when Ichiro signed with the (Seattle) Mariners (in 2000), not only did the Mariners get a lot more Japanese media attention but they also got a lot more Japanese tickets sales with people flying from Japan to Seattle to see the games.

“But they also got a lot more Japanese-based sponsors. They also got American sponsors who have a Japanese connection like Nintendo or Nikon.”

Ohtani, a two-way Japanese superstar, is expected to command a massive long-term deal that could be worth around US$500 million.

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The Los Angeles Dodgers remain the favourite to land him but reports say the Blue Jays are among a handful of other teams believed to be in the mix.

“These types of tentpole franchise players with this magnitude and already a consumer base that would resonate well with a large set of demographics in this city, it could really lift the consumerism,” said Cheri Bradish, an associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University.

“So from an increase in attendance, other types of consumption and then through merchandise, it can really have a profound effect on a team.”

The return on investment, even for such a huge contract, would be “quite high” because of the international impact and other factors, Naraine said.

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“I would overpay over the Dodgers just because Ohtani is that transformational and you can market Ohtani like no one you’ve ever seen,” he said from Welland, Ont.

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Ohtani spent the first six years of his Major League Baseball career with the Los Angeles Angels but has yet to make the playoffs.

He underwent elbow surgery last August that will prevent him from pitching until 2025 but he’s expected to be ready to play as a designated hitter this spring.

Ohtani hit 44 homers and drove in 95 runs over 135 games last season. On the mound, he was 10-5 with a 3.14 earned-run average over 23 starts.

The 29-year-old right-hander — who boasts a two-way game the likes of which haven’t been seen since Babe Ruth a century ago — was a unanimous choice for the 2023 AL MVP award.

“This to me is a no-brainer,” said Naraine. “When you can bring in the best player of all-time potentially and certainly the best player in the game at the moment, you do it.”

The Blue Jays have reached the post-season in three of the last four years but haven’t won a playoff round since 2016. Toronto’s last World Series title came in 1993.

If signed, Ohtani’s left-handed bat could slot into the heart of the Toronto batting order with Bo Bichette, George Springer and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., creating a fearsome lineup to go with one of the best pitching staffs in the big leagues.

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Naraine said it would also make Toronto more appealing to other free agents, extend the team’s competitive window and help fill seats at a newly renovated Rogers Centre.

“This would be a massive win for (team owner) Rogers (Communications) to say look, ‘Not only did we spend millions of dollars to renovate our premium offerings, which are high-revenue generating pieces — but we’ve also brought in a player that will bring in not just the domestic masses, but we’ll get international fans from the States, from Asia — specifically Japan — wanting to come see Ohtani pitch and rake.’”

For a deep-pocketed team owner like Rogers, the exposure to its other holdings would be worth paying Ohtani an expected annual salary in the $50-million range, he added.

“It’s nothing in the grand scheme of things, Rogers is a high-margin business,” Naraine said. “It has verticals in different areas: media, cellphone, wireless, et cetera. Media doesn’t do that great but it’s an investment in the other plays.”

The Toronto-based communications and media company owns the baseball team, downtown stadium and the Sportsnet network that broadcasts games across the country.

Bradish, the chair of marketing management at TMU’s school of business management, said an Ohtani signing would allow the Blue Jays to “really think about their global sport marketing strategy.”

“Those global numbers and followers and activations really become popular and it allows you to speak to different markets and different partners, those types of things,” she said from Toronto. “We know that sport in this country and this city is really smart and sophisticated so they would definitely be able to monetize that investment.”

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The Blue Jays have not been afraid to spend big in recent years. Toronto is a top-10 club in team payroll and has signed players like Springer, Kevin Gausman and Jose Berrios to nine-figure contracts.

“Fans would come out in droves all season long to witness first-hand both the stadium changes and someone who has become the game’s most complete player and pitcher,” retired Blue Jays radio voice Jerry Howarth said in an email.

The Blue Jays will begin their 2024 regular season on March 28 at Tampa Bay.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.

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