In MLB's battle to stay relevant, Shohei Ohtani's Dodgers contract is huge win for baseball

It’s over, and now everyone – Shohei Ohtani, his agent, Nez Balelo, befuddled reporters and the lucky winners, the Los Angeles Dodgers – can breathe a big sigh of relief.

To that list we can unflinchingly add: Major League Baseball.

The game’s greatest player and perhaps its most dynamic performer in history will be playing in its second-biggest market, for one of its most storied franchises, with an opportunity for the league and its broadcast partners to maximize Ohtani’s exposure.

In this atomized sports and pop culture landscape, we will stop short of saying Ohtani can and will elevate baseball to its bygone status as America’s pastime. Yet calling Dodger Stadium home means MLB will have no limits showcasing its unicorn.

A look at why Ohtani in L.A. matters so much:

Shohei Ohtani and Mookie Betts during a game at Dodger Stadium in July 2023.
Shohei Ohtani and Mookie Betts during a game at Dodger Stadium in July 2023.

American exceptionalism

Let’s pause for a moment and send our condolences to the Toronto Blue Jays, who made a strong push for Ohtani and seemed positioned as the best upset pick in the event Ohtani did not choose the Dodgers. Ohtani would have been even more a global star, with a country to himself and a pair of MVP-caliber players – Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – sandwiching him.

Now, let’s ponder the mild disaster having the game’s greatest player in Canada might have meant for the league.

Just consider this: The Blue Jays have not appeared on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball – the game’s marquee broadcast – since 1999. Not even their runs of relevance since 2015 have prompted ESPN to place them in that time slot.

It’s nothing against the Jays. The Sunday night game is simulcast in Canada on TSN and the home market generally makes up 10 to 20% of ESPN’s overall audience; since Nielsen does not count international viewership in its ratings, the network would start off at a huge disadvantage to achieve its typical audience numbers.

While one would think it’d behoove ESPN, Fox and Turner to spotlight the Blue Jays when they’re playing well for the greater overall growth of the game, the fact is that MLB’s broadcast partners have made multi-billion dollar commitments. And they need to recoup those dollars – which is why you see the Yankees and Red Sox seemingly every other week.

Teams can appear a maximum of six times on Sunday Night Baseball. When the Dodgers hit that max, they’ll have the game’s must-see player in tow.

Autumn man

If you heard it once, you heard it 162 times: Shohei Ohtani never made the playoffs as a Los Angeles Angel. Despite being paired with Mike Trout, the Angels’ general organizational dysfunction and their perpetually understaffed pitching corps kept the Angels out of October baseball – and out of contention long before then, typically.

Say this for the Dodgers: They always make the postseason.

In 2024, they’ll aim for their 12th consecutive playoff appearance, 10 of those coming via an NL West championship. They’ve appeared in the World Series three times in that span and Ohtani’s inclusion gives them three former MVPs – along with Mookie Betts and Freddie Freeman – still in their prime.

As of now, the pitching situation looks a little iffy, in part because Ohtani’s second Tommy John surgery will keep him off the mound in 2024. Yet their passel of young starters were key to their 100-win season this past year, and Walker Buehler will himself return from a second elbow reconstruction early in the coming season.

The club also will look to the trade market to augment the rotation; Rays right-hander Tyler Glasnow, a free agent after 2024, would make a great fit as a one-year stopgap before Ohtani returns.

And the Dodgers remain perhaps the gold standard in player development, and feature relatively limitless resources.

In short: Ohtani best not book any vacations for late October.

The jackpot: A bicoastal World Series

Mirroring trends in the TV industry, World Series ratings have been nosediving since, roughly, the early 1980s. And while both MLB and its broadcast partners can accept sagging ratings so long as the live sports broadcast remains a network’s largest lure, there’s only so many Diamondbacks-Rangers battles they want to endure.

Now imagine a Dodgers-Yankees World Series featuring a global superstar.

It is MLB’s ratings white whale, a matchup that has not occurred since 1981, even as those franchises have both reached the postseason in six of the past seven seasons, and 10 of the past 20. The Yankees’ acquisition of Juan Soto earlier this week spells an all-in mentality, and adding Japanese star pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto will only add to the clamor.

Ohtani and Betts and Freeman and Soto and Aaron Judge and Gerrit Cole and Yamamoto? That’s a matchup worth rigging the results.

Oh, MLB doesn’t need to do that. It already got a significant boost, thanks to the biggest contract ever in the perfect place for its greatest star.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Why Shohei Ohtani to Dodgers is big win in MLB fight to stay relevant