Shohei Ohtani’s Deal With New Balance Has Immense Potential

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

There are a handful of things that I consider pillars of my personality and spirit. Baseball, of course, is one of them. That’s likely easy to infer, but there are a few others that you might not know about. Since I was a kid, what I’ve put on my feet has meant a lot to me. No matter where I was going, I wanted to rock fresh kicks. This also meant that players with signature cleats and/or sneakers meant a lot to me, too. I wore Ken Griffey Jr.’s Air Griffey Max 1s the second my feet were big enough to fit into a kid’s pair. Unfortunately, in the last decade or so, baseball players haven’t inspired as prominent a line of footwear as Griffey did. But I think there is a chance for that to change.

In January, baseball’s most iconic star, Shohei Ohtani, signed a multi-year footwear and apparel deal with New Balance. The numbers around the deal still aren’t clear, but it will be a long-term partnership with custom apparel, cleats, and sneakers. What I want to address is the potential impact of this deal and how it can serve as an entry point for growing the culture of baseball by stretching it beyond the diamond and onto people’s feet. Other prominent players, like Aaron Judge and Mike Trout, have footwear and apparel deals of their own, but none has stomped a footprint on sneaker and fashion culture like Griffey did when his first shoe dropped in 1996 at the peak of his stardom.

The drop of the Air Max Griffey 1 was strategic and savvy. In Complex’s account of Griffey’s impact on this era of sneaker and baseball history, they noted that Griffey and Nike’s goal for the shoe was to be multipurpose and fashionable. Specifically, Griffey himself demanded the shoes be wearable with jeans. Why was that? Well, of course that would mean they were more than just an athletic shoe — you can fit them up too. That plan worked out well for Griffey and Nike, who were able to carve out additional space in the sneaker market to go along with the Jordan line and other Nike sponsored basketball players. With the help of the company’s marketing push and its desire to make the most of Griffey’s stardom, an iconic sneaker was created that is still being worn over 20 years after its original release. This helped Griffey cement the leap from being a baseball and sports icon to a cultural one. New Balance and Ohtani could make the most of their partnership if they used this approach to their advantage and applied it to their own plans for Ohtani’s market appeal.

Like Griffey, the Angels’ two-way star is reaching a point in his career where he is more than just an athlete. Ohtani is a global sports icon who is in a perfect position to transcend baseball and make his mark on everyday culture and fashion. Last year, he was featured in the February issue of GQ Sports. To that point, Ohtani hadn’t granted such deep access to a journalist in the states. It’s a wonderful feature, too. In it, Daniel Riley takes the reader through Ohtani’s life as a kid in Japan, detailing how his love for baseball came about and his aspirations in the big leagues. The piece lets Ohtani take the lead in describing his personality rather than projecting one onto him, an all-too-common practice when profiling non-US born players. Instead, Ohtani steers the narrative in the piece and gives us his perspective on his journey to the big leagues and his rise to being an MVP-caliber player.

When I first read the feature, I breezed by the catalog of photos that accompany it, which features Ohtani lifting weights, taking in Angels Stadium, and modeling several outfits. It was only when I returned to it recently that I realized how sharp Ohtani looks. This feature, its accompanying photo catalog, and his deal as brand a brand ambassador for Hugo Boss piqued my interest in Ohtani’s potential to be a lifestyle fashion icon. So when his deal with New Balance was announced and an interesting wrinkle was included, it immediately grabbed my attention for a similar reason.

Ohtani will be the first athlete to sport a cleated version of the NB 574, the most recognizable and prolific shoe the company has ever released. Even if you aren’t too familiar with sneaker culture, you’ve probably seen the 574s at some point, or even owned a pair yourself. The beauty of the shoe is its ability to appeal to many different kinds of people. There are standard colorways meant for the everyday folk, and rarer colorways targeted at sneakerhead purists. JD Sports’ historical overview of the 574 does it more justice than I can, but what you need to know is that the shoe has been around for more than four decades and was (and is) most dominant in the United States and Japan. It put a stamp on lifestyle fashion culture around the mid-90s — about the same time as Griffey’s entry into the sneaker market and in the middle of Jordan’s stronghold. Much of that meteoric rise can be directly traced to Jordan, who helped all shoe brands rise, but New Balance also deserves credit for putting out such a timeless and relatable shoe.

For a player like Ohtani to start his endorsement deal off by rocking those sneakers in their cleat form excites me for a few reasons. If Ohtani’s deal includes his own signature colorway of the 574s, his entrance into sneaker and fashion culture will be prodigious, and perhaps mirror what we saw in the late ‘90s from The Kid. If Griffey proved anything, it’s that the best way to impact fashion as a baseball player is to put a unique spin on an already iconic sneaker. Although Griffey’s shoe is distinctive and is part of its own line, it is a hybrid of the Air Max. Similarly, the Air Jordan 1, designed by Peter Moore, is reminiscent of the Nike Air Force 1, another iconic sneaker designed by Moore. I’m not saying that this is exactly what New Balance needs to do, but the blueprint is there.

Now, I suppose it’s a good time for a heat check. Yes, Ohtani’s presence in the baseball world is unmatched, but there is an elephant in the room bringing the vibes down. Baseball has lost popularity in the US relative to the ‘90s. There is a reason another baseball player hasn’t been able to enter fashion and sneaker culture like Griffey did. The sport’s loss of popularity has made it more difficult for its athletes to become cultural pillars. When Michael Jordan entered the sneaker game, the NBA was in the midst of a cultural rebound largely thanks to Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, and the famous 1992 Olympics Dream Team. When Griffey first debuted his signature shoe in 1996, he was at the peak of his career, having already appeared on cereal boxes and popular television shows. And the sport was regaining momentum generally, with its most iconic franchise, the New York Yankees, back on top of the league just two years after the strike. The timing for these two athletes to insert themselves as cultural icons couldn’t have been better. Does the same hold true for Ohtani?

I’m inclined to say yes. His play on the field speaks for itself. No one has ever done exactly what Ohtani is doing. That puts him in the Michael Jordan/LeBron James territory of unfathomable accomplishments. Next, baseball is finally on its way to embracing its global footprint. Yes, we’ve had international stars before, but today’s game and culture fully embraces those players and recognizes that they are key parts of the future of baseball and its potential growth around the world. We’re seeing exactly how vast this sport is with the World Baseball Classic in full swing. The tournament has given Ohtani a global stage to showcase his talents while many of the game’s best athletes try to do the same. So far, Ohtani has looked like one of the very best hitters in the tournament, if not the best. Across four pool play victories, he has six hits in 12 at-bats, including this majestic shot against a rainbow curveball:

On the bump, he delivered four scoreless innings in Samurai Japan’s opening game against China. After winning all four games, Japan secured their spot as the number one seed on their side of the bracket. They’ll face off against Italy in the quarterfinal later this week, with Ohtani likely toeing the rubber in the matchup with the world watching. All of this shows me that the stars are aligning at the perfect time for Ohtani and New Balance.

It all feels very strategic. New Balance’s footprint and connection with Japan, much of which is attributed to the legendary Kensuke Ishizu, has led to the company’s Japan-based lifestyle division and concept and design stores. Ishizu is best known for his introduction of mid-1900s American East Coast college style to Japan. One Block Down explored the connection between Ishizu and New Balance’s importance in Japanese lifestyle fashion. It seems quite likely that this was a major factor in Ohtani’s decision to cement himself with New Balance. The potential impact he can have with this company puts him in a perfect position to affect fashion and sneakers on two different sides of the world. It doesn’t get more global than that!

If you Google something along the lines of “New Balance growth,” you’ll find a slew of articles explaining the company’s explosion in the last three years. What was once known as a dad brand has exploded with sneakerheads and is now ready to compete with Nike and Adidas at the top of the sneaker market. Above all else, the brand is best known for its uncompromisingly high quality, something that sets it apart from its competitors. Nike’s famous Dunk Highs and Dunks Lows often come with imperfections, and Adidas’ most famous brand, Yeezy, is in shambles. All of those factors have led to a market that is tipping in New Balance’s favor. The company’s ability to secure one of the best athletes in the world is no surprise.

Ohtani and New Balance find themselves with an incredible opportunity to make waves that haven’t been seen in baseball in over 20 years. A brand that has proven it’s more than capable of making the most of a great situation is now in a position to market the most talented player the sport has ever seen. As Nike did with Griffey and Jordan, it’s time to capitalize by getting Ohtani’s signature shoe out for people all over the world to wear. What better way to grow the greatest sport in the world than getting its best player’s clothes and shoes in the closets of people all over the world? I for one will certainly be ready to fit up a cream and red colorway of the NB 574s as soon as I get the chance.

Esteban is a contributing writer at FanGraphs. You can also find his work at Pinstripe Alley if you so dare to read about the Yankees. Find him on Twitter @esteerivera42 for endless talk about swing mechanics.

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1 year ago

I really enjoyed the thought and detail put into this. I also love Fangraphs has a place for articles like this to be enjoyed 🤙