Shohei Ohtani and the 10 best free-agent sagas in sports: From Reggie White to Lionel Messi

Shohei Ohtani’s contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers, reported to be a 10-year pact for $700 million, is the largest in sports history. Years of speculation preceded an abbreviated and covert courtship process, all at Ohtani’s request. All until one fateful day when the baseball internet went crazy.

[Mintz: Shohei Ohtani’s flight to nowhere: A timeline of the weirdest day of the MLB offseason]

Ohtani ultimately made his decision the next day, and will presumably be a Dodger for the next decade. But his saga is only the latest in a long line of dramatic free-agency periods throughout sports. We go through 10 of the biggest from the baseball, basketball, football and soccer worlds. 

Reggie White: Green Bay Packers, 1993

Thirty years have passed since Reggie White made one of the first and biggest splashes in NFL free agency, and while the money seems like pennies in today’s world, his impact with the Green Bay Packers is why teams pay so much when the league’s elite talent hits the open market.

In 1993, White already had 124 career sacks in eight years with the Eagles, but he was a trailblazer in free agency, signing with Green Bay for four years and $17 million, including $9 million paid out in the first year. His signing with Green Bay set the bar high for teams structuring a contract creatively to outbid other worthy suitors in a bidding war. 

White had led the NFL in sacks twice, had seven Pro Bowls and six first-team All-Pro nods, but his postseason impact changed things in his career. After only five playoff games with the Eagles, he had at least two in his first five seasons in Green Bay, leading the defense at age 35 when the Packers won a Super Bowl in 1996, and helping them get back a year later. 

His final year in Green Bay earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award, and he finished with 68.5 sacks in his six seasons with the Packers, a worthy second act in a Hall of Fame career. —Greg Auman

Deion Sanders: San Fransico 49ers, 1994; Dallas Cowboys, 1995

You rarely see Hall of Famers become available in free agency two years in a row, but it happened in 1994-95 with Deion Sanders, bringing “Prime Time” in his prime to San Francisco and Dallas.

After five years in Atlanta, Sanders hit the open market in 1994, and his one year in San Francisco saw him not only earn Defensive Player of the Year, but finish third in MVP voting, helping the 49ers to another Super Bowl win. He had six interceptions, returning three for touchdowns, so it raised the sweepstakes even more for his free agency in 1995.

His contract was for five years and $35 million, then making him the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL. Sanders helped the Cowboys win a Super Bowl as well, and his time there brought three more first-team All-Pro seasons, two more pick-sixes and four punt-return touchdowns. —Auman

Was Deion Sanders’ first season with Colorado a success or failure?

Was Deion Sanders' first season with Colorado a success or failure?

Álex Rodríguez: Texas Rangers, 2000

Before Shohei, there was A-Rod.

Álex Rodríguez’s first foray into free agency, as a fresh-faced 25-year-old back in 2000, didn’t have the public twists and turns of, say, Carlos Correa or Aaron Judge’s free agent saga. But the result — a record-setting 10 year $250 million contract — set the sport ablaze and ushered in the modern era of MLB money.

Rodríguez, ever the mercurial figure, was coming off a comically dominant five-year run in Seattle during which he hit .315/.381/.956 between ages 20 and 24. Never before in the history of MLB free agency had such a talented player hit the market at such a young age.

Rodríguez’s representative, mega-agent Scott Boras, only upped the drama even further. And after A-Rod accepted that massive bag of money from the Rangers, it was quickly clear to everyone in the sport that both sides had made a monumental mistake.

Reports from that winter referenced A-Rod telling friends that he wanted to play for the Mets. In 2018, Rodríguez mentioned on an ESPN broadcast that he still regrets not signing with the Mets that winter.

“This is an economic decision and a career decision,” Rodríguez told Sports Illustrated over the phone after signing. What a rousing, emotional endorsement of the future! Three years later, A-Rod was a Yankee, but that’s its own story. —Jake Mintz

A-Rod & David

A-Rod & David

LeBron James: Miami Heat, 2010

The free agency Decision that changed the game and standard for all future decisions. Everything about this ordeal was unprecedented. LeBron himself was — and remains — a star, talent and force without precedent, but there was also more to it. 

The hometown factor with Cleveland. Big markets like New York and Chicago chasing and in the dark. LeBron being ring-less at the time and in desperate need of a title to solidify — and perhaps even save — his legacy. 

And then it all ended with the announcement being made on a TV show, which, again, is something we had never seen before. For another free agency to approximate the chase for LeBron in 2010, there’d have to be another player like LeBron. In other words: we’re unlikely to ever see anything like this ever again. —Yaron Weitzman

We’ve not seen another athlete quite like LeBron James

We've not seen another athlete quite like LeBron James

DeAndre Jordan: Los Angeles Clippers, 2015

This is the chase that launched NBA Twitter. It has to go down as the most ridiculous free agency ordeal in the history of professional sports. 

Let’s just rip through the timeline quickly. Jordan was a solid rim-running defensive force for the Lob City Clippers. But in July 2015, he decided to sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Pretty standard stuff. Until everyone lost their minds and the drama played out on Twitter through emojis. Yes, you read that right. 

The Clippers panicked, flew to Jordan’s house, convinced him to change his mind, the news leaked, Mavericks wing Chandler Parsons tweeted an emoji of an airplane indicating that he was on his way to Jordan’s home. This was followed by JJ Redick, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Clippers tweeting transportation emojis of their own, and Paul Pierce revealing that he didn’t know to use the internet.

The Clippers stayed at Jordan’s house all day until his contract could be signed, and capped off the evening by making it clear that they weren’t letting Jordan leave

This is the point where we remind you that all this was for a player who, to that point, had never been an All-Star. —Weitzman

Kevin Durant: Golden State Warriors, 2016

Another example of an NBA free agency featuring a bit of everything. A superstar talent who, to that point, had yet to win a ring. A clash of small markets vs. big cities — in this case, Oklahoma City trying to keep Durant away from the big boys on the coasts. 

Lots and lots of wooing — this time in the Hamptons, where Durant camped out and fielded visits from all sorts of suitors, including Tom Brady, who came to pitch the Celtics. And, to cap it off, a since-deleted passive-aggressive social media post from a scorned ex-teammate, this time from Russell Westbrook and of three plates of cupcakes topped by red and blue stars and sprinkles. 

We’d later learn that in the Thunder locker room, “cupcake” was a term used to describe anyone who was “soft.” Making this all more fascinating is that Durant, despite getting two rings, still appears to be a man in search of something. —Weitzman

Tom Brady: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2020

After 20 years and six championships with one team, the greatest quarterback in NFL history actually made it to free agency. And not only did Tom Brady leave the Patriots, he signed with a Bucs team that hadn’t been to the playoffs in 12 years. And they not only went to the playoffs, they won it all in his first year.

Had Brady not won a championship during a pandemic, it would have been even bigger, but his three years in Tampa — adding back-to-back division titles for the first time in franchise history — make Brady’s one of the best unexpected second chapters in NFL history.

We’ve seen so many veterans synonymous with one team finish their careers somewhere else, but rarely does it yield the success Brady enjoyed with Tampa Bay. —Auman

Tom Brady talks what’s next after giving 32 years to football

Tom Brady talks what's next after giving 32 years to football

Cristiano Ronaldo: Manchester United/Al-Nassr, 2021-2022

Cristiano Ronaldo is no stranger to controversy — and had two major free agent dramas in the space of just over a year. First, just as he was seemingly poised to join big-spending Manchester City after leaving Juventus, he completed a last-minute about-turn in August 2021, switching back to Manchester United instead.

Yet for pure shock value, soccer has never seen a more stunning move than when Ronaldo decided to join Al-Nassr a year later on a contract worth $200 million per year, a switch that sparked a huge influx of spending by Saudi Pro League clubs and in some ways kicked off the process that would lead to Saudi Arabia winning hosting rights to the 2034 World Cup. —Martin Rogers

Lionel Messi: Inter Miami, 2023

Lionel Messi’s free agency in the summer of 2023 was filled with extra intrigue, given that he was just months removed from leading Argentina to a thrilling World Cup triumph. For a significant period of time, it seemed as if money would talk loud enough for Messi to make Saudi Arabia his next pit stop after leaving Paris St. Germain.

But David Beckham’s Inter Miami never gave up on the chase, trying to convince Messi that South Florida was the ideal place for him to bring his family for the final few years of his career. An innovative contract that rewards him with a piece of additional streaming subscriptions didn’t hurt either, and the move is rightly seen as one of the most important signings in American soccer history. —Rogers

How do you think Lionel Messi changes the MLS brand?

How do you think Lionel Messi changes the MLS brand?

Carlos Correa: Minnesota Twins, 2023

Correa wasn’t even the top player in his FA class — that honor goes to Arson, I mean, Aaron Judge — but his journey through the open market was the free agent equivalent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. 

On December 15th, Correa and the San Francisco Giants agreed to a 13-year, $350 million deal and were set to officially announce the pact on December 20th. But mere hours before it was due to start, the introductory press conference was abruptly canceled. The Giants had uncovered a last-minute issue with the shortstop’s ankle, which he had injured back in 2014, which pushed them to try and renegotiate the contract.

At this point, New York Mets bajillionare owner Steve Cohen swooped in from the rafters and reached a tentative agreement with Correa on a 12-year, $315 million deal. The Giants were suddenly out and the superstar shortstop was expected to arrive in New York City in early January to announce his new deal.

But then the Mets, who, through Cohen, had revealed the intricate details of their pursuit of Correa, grew concerned with the same lingering ankle problem that sent the Giants deal up in flames. And so the Minnesota Twins, who had employed Correa on a one-year deal the season prior, hopped back into the fray. With the Mets attempting to renegotiate, the Twins reached terms on a six-year, $200 million incentive-laden deal with the understandably exhausted Correa. Three weeks, three teams, three press conferences, seven years and $150 million gone poof over a worrisome ankle. It was undeniably one of the most bonkers and unpredictable free agencies in sports history. —Mintz

Honorable mentions: 

Greg Maddux, Atlanta Braves — 1992

Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies — 2010

David Beckham, LA Galaxy — 2007

Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints — 2006

Peyton Manning, Denver Broncos — 2012

Aaron Judge, New York Yankees — 2022

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.

Jake Mintz, the louder half of @CespedesBBQ is a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He played college baseball, poorly at first, then very well, very briefly. Jake lives in New York City where he coaches Little League and rides his bike, sometimes at the same time. Follow him on Twitter at @Jake_Mintz.

Yaron Weitzman is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. He is the author of “Tanking to the Top: The Philadelphia 76ers and the Most Audacious Process in the History of Professional Sports.” Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman.

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