Sports and product endorsements have gone hand in hand for decades. Some athlete/product relationships are so strong, that a single first or last name of a superstar can instantly make you think of the product: Tiger (Woods) – Nike; LeBron (James) – Nike; (Michael) Jordan – Nike; Peyton (Manning) – Papa John’s Pizza, Gatorade, Nationwide, Buick, yes, Nike too, oh good grief enough already.
But spring is here, and our thoughts – well, mine anyway – turn to baseball, so let’s look at a couple of highlights.
Compared to other sports, baseball players tend to get big contracts but few endorsements. The reasons for this are complicated: according to Zach Bergson of BusinessJournalism.org, it involves “globalization, the localization of baseball, TV ratings and much more”. In 2013, James made more from endorsements than the Major League Baseball’s top 10 players combined. James, Woods, Jordan, and Manning are ambassadors of sports that have significant domestic and global audiences, and their big endorsement deals reflect this truth.
Ironically, it was a baseball player, who was the first athlete who got an endorsement. Tobacco companies were among the first to get permission of select baseball players to create cards to help sell their products. Honus Wagner agreed to lend his name to sell cigarette and tobacco products, but later recanted because he didn’t want kids to buy tobacco to get his baseball card. Because he changed his mind, few cards were created, which made it a prized piece of baseball memorabilia. How prized? The last card sold in 2016 went for $3.2 million.
From Tobacco to Wheaties
Baseball’s relationship with Wheaties began in the 1934 with Lou Gehrig the first person, athlete or otherwise, to grace the iconic cereal box cover. The relationship has continued ever since, with expansion into other sports, and has featured female athletes. Wheaties, which started in Minnesota in the 1920s, increased their popularity through the sponsorship of baseball broadcasting, and included athlete testimonials, which make their famous tagline – breakfast of champions – even more impactful. Once they printed images of athletes on their boxes, the Wheaties cereal box became a part of American culture and was even a signal to an athlete that they had arrived. Click here to see other vintage Wheaties boxes.
Baseball was “king” during these years, but other sports have emerged to compete for our attention and our dollars. Baseball’s highest paid players, as reported by Forbes, might have amazing contracts, but are not valued as product spokesmen because they are known regionally, not so much globally. Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Clayton Kershaw is the highest paid player in the MLB at $32 million. To compare, the latest statistics of the highest paid athlete endorsers from 2016 show David Ortiz, now retired, is rated #46 with $6 million in endorsements; Kershaw comes in at #70 with only $800,000.
The new endorsement baseball star is Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals, who signed a 10-year deal with Under Armour. While the contract details have not been made public, it is still unlikely to put Harper near the top of the endorser list. Who is number one? Just some tennis player named Roger Federer, who made a cool $60 million in 2016. For now, baseball players will have to continue to go for those large contracts and look at endorsements as the “cherries on top”.
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