Can Shohei Ohtani Still Boost Tourism to the U.S.?

Rahm Emanuel and Shohei Otani with LA Dodgers jersey 2024 01 02 2 e1711724730623

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Shohei Ohtani joining the Los Angeles Dodgers has made him an even bigger star in the eyes of Japanese baseball fans eager to see him play in person, provided a gambling scandal doesn’t sideline the two-time MVP.

Shohei Ohtani is possibly MLB’s biggest star and Japan’s most popular athlete: He’s twice been the American League’s MVP and has now moved to the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of MLB’s biggest brands and most valuable franchises.

Ohtani could also boost tourism from his baseball-mad homeland to the United States — that is, if he doesn’t face a suspension for being involved in a gambling scandal that broke out at the start of the MLB season.

JTB, Japan’s largest travel agency, sees strong demand from Japanese fans to see Ohtani suit up for the Dodgers. The company, which announced a multi-year international partnership with MLB in late January, offered travel packages for the two-game season-opening series in Seoul, South Korea, between the Dodgers and the San Diego Padres in March.

JTB Branding and PR Manager Kaori Mori declined to disclose how many packages it sold. But the demand was so great, JTB had to conduct a lottery.

JTB has previously helped Japanese baseball fans travel to the U.S. to see other baseball stars, including Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui, and Yu Darvish. But it had not formally worked with MLB until now. JTB will offer travel packages to Ohtani’s regular season games: In addition to flights, hotel accommodation and tickets, packages will include an opportunity for fans to watch batting practice.

“JTB is focused on promoting the sports hospitality business on a global scale, and MLB has a strategy to expand its global reach. So it can be said our goals are aligned,” Mori said, adding that JTB and MLB had been discussing an international partnership for eight years.

Ohtani Boost For Anaheim

Los Angeles tourism officials also view Ohtani as a big deal. LA Tourism highlighted his Dodgers debut as part of its “The Best of LA in 2024.”

Ohtani has already boosted tourism in the Los Angeles area from his time with the Angels, which play their home games in Anaheim in neighboring Orange County.

Roughly 157,000 Japanese tourists visited Anaheim during Ohtani’s rookie season in 2018, an increase of about 4% from each of the previous two years, according to Lindsay Swanson, Visit Anaheim‘s communications director.

“International markets like Japan can mistake Anaheim for being a part of Los Angeles County instead of Orange County. By having Ohtani on the Angels, it increased name recognition for Anaheim in Japan,” Swanson said, noting that Japanese travelers are likely to visit more than one location while in California.

“(When) Ohtani was on the Angels, it was an increased draw for Japanese visitors to add Anaheim to their California itinerary. Japanese tourists now visit beyond the theme parks to Angel Stadium and their surrounding restaurants and breweries, bringing business to the local establishments and showcasing other parts of Anaheim.” 

Rise of Sports Tourism

An Ohtani-related tourism bump fits with the rise of sports tourism. A Visit Anaheim survey of 2,000 adults last year found 35% have specifically planned a vacation based on when and where their favorite team is playing.

“Even though this was a U.S.-based survey, we feel that these results translate to a universal trend in a rise in sports tourism,” Swanson said.

Bloomberg recently reported the number of people paying for the streaming service has doubled in Japan since Ohtani’s MLB debut. In addition, the average TV audience in Japan for Ohtani games is nearly triple than of games he doesn’t play in.

Some Japanese fans are looking to attend Ohtani games in locations other than Los Angeles. Fumihide Oda, an executive of a Hokkaido-based confectionary company, recently told the New York Times he’s planning to take his family to see Ohtani and the Dodgers play this August in Oakland, where they believe it would be much easier to obtain tickets than at Dodger Stadium.

Possible Impact of a Gambling Scandal

One factor that could dent Ohtani’s popularity on both sides of the Pacific, as well as raise the issue of a possible suspension, is the scandal involving Ohtani and his former interpreter Ippei Mizuhara.

The Dodgers fired Mizuhara during its season-opening series in Seoul after ESPN reported that Ohtani’s lawyers accused the slugger’s longtime friend of stealing at least $4.5 million to cover a gambling debt to a bookmaker under federal investigation. MLB has launched its own investigation; Commissioner Rob Manfred has said he was unsure about how long it would take.

Ohtani has denied betting on baseball or any other sports. MLB players, umpires, officials or employees found betting on a baseball game they’re not involved in are subject to a one-year suspension. Anyone betting on games in which they’re involved in can receive a lifetime ban.

Mori doesn’t seem too worried about the controversy affecting business, noting that customers who would have never thought of coming to the U.S. to watch a baseball game are now thinking of doing so.

“Japanese people love baseball and are proud of what Ohtani has accomplished,” Mori said.

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