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[NOTES on a SCORECARD] For Shohei Ohtani, the Impact of the Unsettled Gambling Probe Remains Uncertain

Veteran sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman shared his viewpoints on how the scandal could affect the future appeal of Shohei Ohtani to sponsors.

With so much attention being focused on the betting investigation presently enveloping Shohei Ohtani, and what he knew and when he knew it, Notes on a Scorecard wondered about the potential long-term impact of it on the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar's marketability as an endorser.

At 29, the two-time American League MVP and hero of Japan's victory in the 2023 World Baseball Classic is at the height of his powers, and reportedly made $40 million USD (more than ¥6 billion JPY) off the field in 2023.

The prospects for a continued sponsorship windfall seemed all but assured until the story broke in March that Ohtani's now-fired translator Ippei Mizuhara was ensnared in a gambling controversy that saw him having allegedly paid $4.5 million (more than ¥680 million) to a bookie with Ohtani's money.

Ohtani currently boasts an impressive collection of endorsement pacts with the likes of New Balance, Descente, Japan Airlines, Hugo Boss, Nishikawa Corporation, New Era, Panini, Fanatics, Oakley, Topps, Seiko, Kowa, MUFJ Bank, Salesforce and Porsche Japan.

Notes on a Scorecard reached out to veteran sports marketing expert Bob Dorfman, the creative director at Pinnacle Advertising in San Francisco, for his analysis on how the scandal could affect Ohtani's future appeal to sponsors.

Pinnacle Advertising creative director Bob Dorfman

"This mysterious story has not yet fully played out, and Ohtani's reputation hangs in the balance," Dorfman wrote in reply to several questions I sent him via email. "While it strains belief that he was unaware of his interpreter's massive illegal bets, his explanation — that Mizuhara stole from him — assuages his guilt and keeps his brand untarnished.

"I would expect prospective marketers to take a wait-and-see approach to signing him to new deals, and current sponsors may also take a careful stance until the rest of the story is revealed."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani singles to right in the third inning off San Diego Padres starter Yu Darvish in the first game of MLB's season-opening Seoul Series on March 20. (ⒸSANKEI).

'Ohtani is the Face of Baseball'

Dorfman, who is frequently called upon to give his opinion on sports business matters on television and for publications, believes that Ohtani's reputation in the sport will protect him for the time being.

"Ohtani is the face of baseball, and everyone — the MLB, the Dodgers, his agents, publicists and lawyers — will do all they can to maintain his innocence and keep his rep clean," commented Dorfman, who was the creative director for Dentsu Inc in Japan early in his career (1981-85). "As long as he can stay above the fray, his endorsement value will remain strong."

The betting case marks the second potentially damaging issue that Ohtani is being confronted with, as he is currently being sued over his endorsement of the collapsed cryptocurrency exchange FTX by investors who lost their money.

Dorfman feels the FTX matter does not rise to the level of the gambling case for Ohtani, but warns that nothing is set in stone until all the details of the Mizuhara story are revealed.

"The crypto controversy is minor league compared to the gambling scandal," Dorfman noted. "But yes, I think companies will be hesitant to sign Ohtani to any new deals until he's 100% clear of any guilt or illegal activity. It certainly feels like there's a lot more to this story. So far, Ohtani has found an explanation that keeps his reputation intact, and lays all the guilt upon Mizuhara — but who knows where this story may go next?"

High-Profile Scandals That Derailed American Sports Legends' Earning Potential

Notes on a Scorecard asked Dorfman if he could recall a similar scandal that torpedoed the endorsement career of a star athlete. Dorfman replied with the incidents involving two American sports legends.

"Obviously, the Pete Rose gambling scandal comes to mind," Dorfman wrote, referring to MLB's all-time hit king who was banned from baseball in 1989. "It cost him his baseball career, a spot in the Hall of Fame, and who knows how much in potential endorsement dollars. And as for an athlete at the top of his game, the 2009 Tiger Woods sex scandal was a massive blow to his marketability, and cost him tens of millions in endorsement deals. He basically had to rebuild his brand from scratch."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani appears in a Nippon Ham Group commercial in December 2016. (©SANKEI)

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The Impact of Language Proficiency 

I wanted to get Dorfman's take on Ohtani's apparent lack of fluency in English, how it likely played a role in the betting fiasco, and where that leaves him with companies that may be interested in hiring him.

"It would surely help Ohtani's marketability to become fluent in English — or at least good enough to deliver a 30-second script comfortably," Dorfman assessed. "He seems to be a fairly private person, and the most successful athlete endorsers in the US are charismatic, strong personalities, and very open. Speaking English would help Ohtani bring out his character, help him better connect with fans, and make him a more likeable and versatile pitchman."

Notes on a Scorecard inquired of Dorfman just how much companies value integrity and judgment when signing an athlete as an endorser.

"Integrity is huge for an athlete's brand appeal," Dorfman wrote. "They're lending their image to a product, and have to come off as honest, sincere and trustworthy. Their personality rubs off on the product they endorse. It can't appear that they're just doing it for a buck — even though they often are."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani makes a commercial in January 2024. (©SANKEI)

Ohtani's Value as an Endorser

I questioned Dorfman on Ohtani's value as an endorser at this moment in comparison to scandal-free stars like Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry.

"Hard to say until this scandal fully plays out," Dorfman replied. "Right now, I'd rank Curry and Mahomes ahead of Ohtani for a number of reasons: they're both American-born [athletes], are playing sports that are cooler and more popular than baseball, and are 100% scandal-free."

Despite the storm clouds currently swirling around Ohtani, Dorfman feels that if he can emerge from the betting case unscathed, the sky's the limit for sponsorship deals for the two-way star.

"The opportunities for Ohtani are wide open, so long as he avoids any trouble from this gambling issue," Dorfman wrote. "He could pitch health and beauty, fashion, hair care, health food and drink, fast food, financial, telecom, any high-tech product, you name it."

Bob Dorfman

Notes on a Scorecard wondered if Ohtani should steer clear of new endorsement deals for the time being and focus on charitable endeavors instead.

"[I] think he should focus on hitting home runs and helping the Dodgers win a World Series," Dorfman answered. "The postseason is where he'll build attention and reach a broader fan base. And winning cures just about everything."

Shohei Ohtani
Shohei Ohtani runs off the field before the game against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field on April 6. (Matt Marton/USA TODAY SPORTS)

Will Ohtani's Endorsement Earnings Drop in 2025?

With Ohtani believed to have earned $40 million (more than ¥6 billion) in endorsements in 2023, Dorfman was queried on whether he saw that number rising or falling in 2025.

"Again, it all depends on how this scandal plays out," Dorfman wrote back. "Knowing his value and popularity, I think the league will shield him from any wrongdoing. And if he can lead his Dodgers to a World Series [title] this season, his deals in 2025 could easily top $50M (nearly ¥7.6 billion) or more."

I cited the fact that the overwhelming majority of Ohtani's endorsement deals are either with Japanese companies or brands with significant profiles in Japan. And I wanted to know if Dorfman felt that was surprising, considering Ohtani's playing success Stateside.

"I think the American deals will come," Dorfman answered. "Ohtani was a bit lost on the Angels — not a lot of East Coast exposure, and no postseason action. The Dodgers are a much bigger brand — successful, winning, flashy, all Hollywood — one of the best-known sports franchises in the world.

"If he succeeds there, he'll score big with American advertisers."

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Author: Jack Gallagher

The author is a veteran sports journalist and one of the world's foremost figure skating experts. Find articles and podcasts by Jack on his author page, and find him on X (formerly Twitter) @sportsjapan.

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