TOKYO (Reuters) – Japanese baseball fans have been following every hit and pitch of Shohei Ohtani’s sensational rookie season and increasing numbers of them are making the trip across the Pacific to see the 23-year-old live in action.
Ohtani’s ability to have an impact as both pitcher and hitter – a “two-way” player in the baseball lexicon – have seen him compared to Hall of Famer Babe Ruth and crowds at the Los Angeles Angels games have boomed in his first year at the team.
Attendances at Angels games have risen 10 percent this year to nearly 40,000 per game, the best in the American League and third behind city rivals the Dodgers and the St Louis Cardinals in all of Major League Baseball.
It is a remarkable upsurge for a team who have only been to the post-season once since 2009 and Japanese fans drawn to California by the early success of Ohtani are responsible for at least part of it.
Online ticket reseller Vivid seats have seen Angels ticket prices increase 21 percent year-on-year this season, with the Angels ticket page the most frequently visited by customers in Japan.
This reflects a big hike in demand for Angels tickets that has taken the re-sale market by surprise.
“We noticed indications in spring training that Shohei Ohtani was generating significant buzz,” the company told Reuters via email.
“But looking at Vivid Seats regular season data, the uptick in appetite for Angels tickets from fans in Japan was not something we expected.”
Ohtani’s first home start in April was watched by 44,742 fans – the biggest crowd for an Angels regular season day game in two decades – but it is not only in ticket sales that he is having a commercial impact on the league.
Jersey sales from the first month of the season predictably made Ohtani the most popular player in Japan but MLB figures also show shirts bearing his name were the third biggest seller in the United States.
Jim Small, the league’s Asia chief, told Reuters earlier this month that Ohtani’s success was also having a wider impact on the MLB’s popularity right across Asia.
“Television ratings right now are triple what they were last year across all of our games,” he said.
“So clearly this story is resonating with fans throughout Japan and really throughout Asia.
“We have seen increases in social media, ratings in China, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) and in Korea,” Small added. “I think Asia has rallied behind Shohei Ohtani.”
With TV ratings for Angels games also booming stateside and the team sitting atop their division with a 21-13 record, the Angels’ commercial department are sure to be contemplating the remaining six years of Ohtani’s contract with some pleasure.