Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter would seem to be a marketer’s dream team. Not only are they two of the best players of their generation, they are handsome and scandal-free in a sport wracked by steroid claims. Even more, they play for the best-known brand in baseball, the New York Yankees, and live in the biggest market in the United States. Their team often makes the playoffs and is watched frequently on the national stage.
Despite all those advantages, a teenage female golfer hauls in more endorsements each year than Rodriguez and Jeter combined — about $6 million more. According to Sports Illustrated, Michelle Wie earned about $19 million in endorsements in 2007, dwarfing Jeter’s estimated $7 million and Rodriquez’ $6 million. Yet Wie plays on the LPGA Tour, whose TV ratings are minuscule and whose national footprint barely registers compared to Major League Baseball’s.
It has been countless decades since baseball players stood out as pitchmen on the U.S. sports landscape. Back in the 1970s, New York Jets quarterback Joe Willie Namath became a marketing sensation, promoting everything from Brut to Beautymist pantyhose. Around the same time, Cincinnati catcher Johnny Bench and Oakland outfielder Reggie Jackson were slugging home runs and winning World Series, yet Madison Avenue barely noticed them.
Among athletes, Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan dominated commercials and product endorsements in the 1990s. This century, Tiger Woods is raking in about $100 million annually in endorsements, more than double that of his closest sports competitor.
Baseball players flip the typical salary/endorsement ratio on its head. While Miami standout Dwyane Wade’s $12 million or so in endorsements is roughly triple his annual salary — a margin that’s not unheard of among top NBA endorsers — A-Rod and Jeter’s salaries are three times the amount of their endorsement income. Both Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning and New England quarterback Tom Brady enjoy more endorsement income than salary.
According to the SportsBusiness Journal's list of most marketable athletes, not one baseball player is in the top 15. And only one retired player — Cal Ripken Jr. — makes the list for retired athletes.
What’s happened to players from the national pastime?
Before television, baseball players had the marketing arena to themselves, competing only against boxers and racehorses. But as sports have exploded in popularity since the 1950s, a number of competitors have taken baseball’s thunder away, leaving its players fighting for endorsements against those in sports — such as NASCAR — that were national jokes in Mickey Mantle’s heyday.
”Those who are older remember baseball players being successful pitchmen. Babe Ruth could sell everything under the sun,” said David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California. “There are more alternatives now for corporations. They have options in golf and tennis that are compelling. Action sports are emerging.”
The makeup of baseball players themselves has changed radically in recent decades. An influx of players from Japan, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere has caused the numbers of U.S.-born players to shrink. Many players from foreign lands grab marketing opportunities in their home countries, while their appeal to U.S. firms is not as strong. Seattle Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki may end up in the Hall of Fame, but he will never be known for persuading the masses to buy Budweiser; he is more comfortable promoting Japanese brands.
And, obviously, the steroid scandal has frightened companies away. When a player such as Roger Clemens, he of Cy Young awards, World Series championships and $3.5 million in endorsement income, can be hauled in front of Congress and accused of being shot in the buttocks with illegal drugs, can any player be trusted? San Francisco’s Barry Bonds could barely find any corporate interest in his historic home run chase, when he broke Hank Aaron’s record last year.
”If I’m in corporate America and I’m thinking of bringing a product to market, do I rely on one athlete with all the steroid issues?” Carter said. “I sense there’s reluctance to throw money at these players before all this is settled.”
To be sure, baseball possesses marketable stars. Philadelphia slugger Ryan Howard has enjoyed endorsements with Subway, Under Armour and others, and he’s only entering his fifth season in the majors. St. Louis first baseman Albert Pujols pulls in a respectable $3.5 million annually, despite playing in a small market, and Sports Illustrated estimated that Boston’s Manny Ramirez earned $2.5 million in endorsements last year.
Still, there’s a problem that hasn’t been solved. When one thinks of the great commercials of all-time involving athletes — such as Mean Joe Greene and Coca-Cola, or Jordan and Larry Bird hoping to hit “nothing but net” — none star baseball players. When one looks at the top ten endorsers in U.S. sports today, none play baseball. Though the sport itself is excelling, generating $6 billion in revenue last year, its players are far from a hit off the field.