Ohtani Shōhei Donates Baseball Gloves to Japanese Schools

Sports Economy Society Culture

Ohtani Shōhei has drawn headlines of late for winning his second American League MVP award and signing an unprecedented 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. In Japan, in November he also made the news for his charity with the announcement that he was teaming up with New Balance to donate 60,000 baseball gloves to elementary schools across Japan. A sport writer looks at the strategy behind the gift and ongoing efforts to boost flagging interest in baseball.

Ohtani Donates Special Edition Gloves

Ohtani Shōhei recently announced on his Instagram account that he will donate youth gloves to every elementary school in Japan. The act of charity, totaling around 60,000 gloves, will benefit students at some 20,000 schools. “I’m hoping the kids can spend their days happily with a lot of energy through baseball,” Ohtani stated in the post. “I’ll be looking forward to sharing the field one day with someone that grew up using this glove!”

The post was accompanied by a photo of a glove and the phrase “Let’s play baseball!” written in Japanese in Ohtani’s own handwriting.

The youth gloves Ohtani is donating are smaller than typical baseball gloves. Manufactured by sporting goods firm New Balance, they are specially designed to fit younger hands. Each school is to receive a total of three gloves—two for right-handers and one for left-handers—that will be delivered between December 2023 and March 2024.

New Balance will not make the line of gloves publicly available, a decision designed to prevent putting schools in the uncomfortable position of being used in an advertising scheme. At the same time, though, Ohtani through his charity is communicating his message of wanting more children to enjoy playing baseball. It’s a well thought out marketing strategy.

New Balance Eyes the Japanese Market

New Balance was founded in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1906. It started off as a manufacturer of corrective footwear, but came to be known as a maker of running shoes. Today, its lines of casual shoes are highly sought after.

Since 2010, New Balance has grown its presence in professional baseball with more and more Major League Baseball players lacing up a pair of the maker’s cleats, allowing the firm to claim a larger portion of the market. Ohtani, who up until last year was under contract with Kobe-based Asics, is among those MLB players signing contracts with New Balance. During Japan’s championship run at the World Baseball Classic, he sported a slew of New Balance gear, including baseball glove, cleats, batting glove, and elbow guard.

Ohtani switched to New Balance equipment in 2023. (©︎ Jiji)
Ohtani switched to New Balance equipment in 2023. (©︎ ︎Jiji)

New Balance also sponsors Murakami Munetaka of the Yakult Swallows of Nippon Professional Baseball. New Balance put its line of cleats specially designed for the slugger on the market in 2023, aiming it at high school players. Although the Japan High School Baseball Federation ultimately banned players from wearing the shoes for regular-season games due to the size of the logo, it is indisputable that Japan represents an enormous market for the brand’s baseball equipment.

“Step On Someone’s Toes”

The strategy employed by US sporting goods manufacturer Nike is one of the most famous in the industry. An advertisement featuring former National Football League player Colin Kaepernick, who was shut out of the league for demonstrating on the field against racism, garnered enormous attention. After tennis star Ōsaka Naomi signed a contract with Nike, she made it clear that she too took a stand against racism. While racism is a divisive issue in US society, Nike has improved its image by actively facing this issue, with the company placing as much importance on social messaging as it does on profits from sales.

New Balance has embraced a similar approach with regard to broader messaging. The company identified the issue that fewer people are playing baseball in Japan and moved to bolster interest in the sport by teaming up with MLB superstar Ohtani in donating baseball gloves to youths.

“The glove donation program is part of our effort to help future baseball players pursue their dreams and grow in the process,” says Kubota Shinichi, president of New Balance Japan. “We are proud to be putting our full support behind Ohtani Shōhei, a player who is pioneering a new future for Japanese baseball, and to be doing our part to help baseball fill children with hopes and dreams.”

During an appearance on the Japanese television program The Cambrian Palace, Kubota talked about his motto: “Step on someone’s toes.”

He said that it refers to the need sometimes to go outside your comfort zone and intrude into someone else’s space. By “stepping on someone else’s toes,” he explained, new forms of communication and competition arise, which in turn give rise to distinctive ideas that might never have developed otherwise.

Rekindling a Passion for Baseball

Japanese sportwear manufacturers see the dwindling number of young people playing baseball as a crisis. In January 2017 several companies banded together and launched Kyūkatsu Iinkai, or the Baseball and Softball Revitalization Committee. There are 18 member companies, including Mizuno, Asics, SSK, and Zett.

The group’s slogan, “Play Ball, Play Life.” is proudly displayed on the banner of its official website, which also features descriptions of the various initiatives it has developed to popularize and support the game.

These include “Kids Ballpark,” a seminar for preschool-aged children and their parents or guardians. Events were held 23 times in 2022 at locations throughout Japan. The group is working to raise awareness of its activities among the public, including by getting more professional baseball players involved, which it has struggled to do. To get its message across, the group needs to follow the lead of US companies and explore new, more effective methods of appealing to the public. I have long hoped that more effort would be put into wooing young people back to baseball. New Balance, in seeking to “step on toes,” is pushing to achieve this goal.

Former Yomiuri Giants and New York Yankees star Matsui Hideki recently shared his views of the differences between Japanese and American baseball on the Kyūkatsu Iinkai’s webpage. “The baseball infrastructures in Japan and the United States are different,” Matsui explained. “In America people can play catch or hold baseball games in many public areas, and Little League teams play on well-maintained fields. Even in major cities like New York, there are many such baseball fields just a short way off in the suburbs. Americans are fortunate in this respect. In Japan, however, there generally aren’t many public areas like parks that accommodate people wanting to play baseball.”

The Roberto Clemente Award

In 2015, Matsui founded the Matsui 55 Baseball Foundation, a US-based charitable organization that holds baseball seminars in both Japan and the United States, with the goal of boosting the popularity of the sport. Matsui shares with Ohtani and many other MLB players a desire to give back to society.

Matsui Hideki at a baseball seminar held in New York State in October 2023. (©︎  Jiji)
Matsui Hideki at a baseball seminar held in New York State in October 2023. (©︎ ︎Jiji)

One symbol of this desire in the MLB is the Roberto Clemente Award. Formerly the Commissioner’s Award, it is given to players who engage in outstanding charitable work and show high moral character on and off the field. It was renamed in honor of Clemente, a star player for the Pittsburgh Pirates and member of the 3,000-hit club who died in a plane crash in 1972 while delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The award is generally considered to be even more prestigious than the MVP award.

This year Yankees slugger Aaron Judge won the Roberto Clemente Award. In 2018 Judge founded the All Rise Foundation, which provides support to needy children in New York, the home of the Yankees, and California, Judge’s home state. On winning the award, Judge said, “This is just the first step. I look forward to supporting even more children.” Not satisfied with vying for the title of home run king, Judge and Ohtani are striving to make an impact off the field.

Aaron Judge of the Yankees (right) at a press conference on October 30, 2023, in Phoenix, Arizona, after winning the Roberto Clemente Award.  (©︎ Jiji)
Aaron Judge of the Yankees (right) at a press conference on October 30, 2023, in Phoenix, Arizona, after winning the Roberto Clemente Award. (©︎ ︎Jiji)

The value of professional sports lies not only in the entertainment it provides and the enormous revenues it generates. The players, teams, and corporate sponsors are part of local communities and give back through providing joy to fans and contributing to the local economy. This is the “cycle” of sports culture, and it is the sentiment that inspired Ohtani’s donation of baseball gloves to elementary schools in Japan.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: A post made on New Balance’s website and its official Instagram account on November 9, 2023, announcing Ohtani Shōhei’s donation of 60,000 baseball gloves to Japanese elementary schools. Courtesy of New Balance Japan.)

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