Oh, Ohtani! Gambling Scandal Has High Comms Stakes

Thom Weidlich 03.28.24


One of the biggest crises currently rocking the sports world — the gambling scandal swirling around Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Shohei Ohtani — raises all sorts of tawdry communications issues with all sorts of important communications lessons. Not the least of those lessons arises from a presser Ohtani himself held.

On Tue., March 19, when the Dodgers were in South Korea to open their season (against the San Diego Padres), Ippei Mizuhara, longtime interpreter and friend of Japan native Ohtani, gave a 90-minute interview to ESPN. Ohtani apparently didn’t know about it, but his spokesman did.

In the interview, Mizuhara claimed that Ohtani had covered $4.5 million in gambling debts the interpreter owed to a California-based bookmaker. Sports gambling remains illegal in California, and Mizuhara (who said he didn’t bet on baseball) and the bookmaker are reportedly under federal investigation. Sports gambling, though accepted in many corners of the sports world, is controversial. It’s not surprising this has blown up into such an issue.

‘Massive Theft’

The day after the interview, but before the ESPN article was published, Ohtani’s spokesman (who reportedly was a recently hired crisis communications counselor whom we haven’t seen named) recanted the story and said Ohtani’s law firm would issue a statement. Which it did: “In the course of responding to recent media inquiries, we discovered that Shohei has been the victim of a massive theft, and we are turning the matter over to the authorities,” said West Hollywood, California-based Berk Brettler LLP.

After that came out, Mizuhara changed his own story and said Ohtani didn’t know about his gambling debts and hadn’t transferred any money to the bookmaker. Mizuhara was on the Dodgers’ payroll and, that same day, the team fired him. MLB has opened an investigation into the mess.

The first noticeable comms issue is that it appears Ohtani’s spokesman didn’t initially coordinate with the law firm. Even the accusation that Ohtani covered Mizuhara’s debts was trouble. This is an unusual situation, but when it comes to high-stakes comms such as this, everyone has to be on the same page.

Conflicting Narratives

A second comms issue is that, probably because of that lack of coordination, we had conflicting narratives and unanswered questions, which kept intense focus on the story (that’s why it’s so important to get the facts straight from the get-go). Was Mizuhara covering for Ohtani’s own gambling? Also, the law firm’s statement didn’t explain who did the thieving.

On Monday, the press-shy Ohtani held a press conference in which he appeared to clear up some (not all) of the questions. We’re usually not fans of pressers because they can turn into zoos, but Ohtani’s camp said in advance he wouldn’t be taking questions, just making a statement.

In fact, Ohtani did a good job and, if he was truthful (which he seemed to be), he cleared up a number of things. He was more forthcoming than might have been expected.

‘Gambling Addiction’

He said he’s never gambled or had any dealings with bookmakers. He said that, until the team was in South Korea, he was unaware of Mizuhara’s “gambling addiction,” his huge debt or his alleged shenanigans with his money (though it’s still unknown how Mizuhara accessed his accounts). He said he never agreed to pay off his friend’s debt. After he learned of it, he informed his representatives and the Dodgers, and then went to authorities (his side is declining to say which ones).

“Ippei has been stealing money from my account and has told lies,” he said.

In our view, Ohtani took the heat off himself and — again, if truthful — convincingly portrayed himself as the victim, not the bad guy. It shows the importance of invoking facts and telling your story.

Ohtani conducted his presser through an interpreter. Not Mizuhara, obviously.

Image Credit: Brocreative/Shutterstock

Sign up for our free weekly newsletter on crisis communications. Each week we highlight a crisis story in the news or a survey or study with an eye toward the type of best practices and strategies you can put to work each day. Click here to subscribe. 

Related:NFL Gambling Scandal Shows How Facts Can Help in a Crisis