Baseball is enjoying a boom period.
More than a decade of peaceful labor relations has helped spur record attendance and revenue. New ballparks throughout the country have created a larger revenue stream — in the nation’s capital, Nationals Park opens this season as fans and players happily wave goodbye to creaky RFK Stadium.
Despite the good times, baseball players have not cashed in off the field. The steroid controversy has stunted the growth in the marketing arena and knocked out stars such as Roger Clemens, who once hauled in millions of dollars in endorsements.
“Marketers have to consider the risk that an athlete may some day be accused of inappropriate drug use,” says Timothy Calkins, a marketing professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “This risk reduces the endorsement value of every athlete, both those who have been accused of steroid use and those who haven't.”
So which players are poised to prosper this season despite the steroid cloud? Here’s a look at baseball’s eight most marketable players in 2008.
1. Derek Jeter: The gold standard in the endorsement game today, Jeter benefits from a clean image and his loyalty to one team throughout his career. He even appeared in a commercial during the Super Bowl, the biggest day of the year for advertising. Still, his $7 million annually in endorsements is a pittance in sports. The smooth shortstop plays for the historic Yankees franchise, is well-known nationally for his World Series appearances, yet he earns the same amount as Denver bad-boy guard Allan Iverson.
2. Alex Rodriguez: His ridiculous move to announce his free agency during the World Series could have been a fatal blow, but he smartly re-signed a lengthy contract with the Yankees, and his miscue has been forgotten. His good looks and sensational play are a marketer’s dream. Yet he and teammate Jeter split the big New York market, hurting both in the endorsement world. The best is yet to come: His expected run at Barry Bonds’ home run mark around the 2013 season will launch him into the marketing stratosphere.
3. Ryan Howard: The Philadelphia Phillies’ slugger has loads of upside. Playing for a strong team in a big market, he’s already inked deals with Verizon, Subway and adidas, among others. His image graces the cover of the “MLB ‘08 The Show” videogame by Sony. Likable and only 28, the one-time National League Rookie of the Year is on the road to a top-notch endorsement career.
4. Ichiro Suzuki: The Seattle outfielder’s inside-the-park home run during the 2007 All-Star Game raised his national profile — which suffers from playing on a mediocre West Coast team — significantly. His marketing prowess is still strongest in the international arena: he’s more interested in deals in his home country of Japan, where he has pacts with Nikko, Cordial and others, than in the U.S. In fact, he’s the top-ranked baseball player on Sports Illustrated’s International 20, bringing in an estimated $24 million in salary and endorsements last year.
5. David Ortiz: Six years ago, Big Papi was a little-known player toiling for the Minnesota Twins, with 20 home runs and 75 runs batted in serving as career bests. Today, he is famous as the designated hitter for a once-woebegone franchise that has captured two of the last four World Series. Deals have been struck with New Era, Reebok and others, and Boston’s Ortiz is a favorite in the New England market. A towering figure at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, the 32-year-old has a few more years to capitalize on his engaging personality.
6. David Wright: The young New York Mets third baseman has everything going for him. He plays for a large-market team with a strong shot at the World Series this year. In three seasons, he already has appeared on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” read the No. 1 item on David Letterman’s Top Ten list and served as the face of baseball during 2007 All-Star Game advertisements. Topps Cards and VitaminWater (where he made a stock killing when the company was taken over last year) are among his endorsement pacts. Though his fielding may be suspect (64 errors in three years), the 25-year-old’s marketing future is not.
7. Albert Pujols: Sports Illustrated estimated $3.5 million in endorsements for the 28-year-old last season, which were helped by his introduction to the nation during the 2006 World Series. A slugger in his prime, the first baseman is only hampered by playing in small-market St. Louis.
8. Kosuke Fukudome: Entering his first major league season, the superstar from Japan is already featured in Chicago Cubs ad campaigns, though he’s never set foot in Wrigley Field for a game. International appeal for the Japan Central League MVP is strong; the key to establishing a national footprint is to develop a following on superstation WGN (had Harry Caray been alive to flub his name, it would be a guarantee) and leading the Cubs to their first World Series championship in a century (well, everyone can dream).