Will Trout & Harper Kick-Start MLB Endorsement Deals?

There was the Reggie Bar, named for and endorsed by Reggie Jackson. There was Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle in a prominent ad for Yoo-Hoo Chocolate Drink. Stan Musial was on the back of the Wheaties box and paired with Ted Williams in ads for Chesterfield cigarettes. Roger Clemens was in a Zest soap commercial and Rafael Palmeiro talked about erectile dysfunction for Viagra. Okay, maybe that last one isn’t the one to highlight.

But why aren’t there big major league stars on today’s Wheaties boxes?

Sure, Joe Mauer was the face (the hair?) of Head & Shoulders in the past several years, a distinction C.J. Wilson now has. And you see CC Sabathia and Ryan Howard talking goofy to their footlongs (that aren’t exactly a foot long) for Subway. And who can forget Brian Wilson with his “Black Ops” commercials for Taco Bell? You? You can forget them? Yeah, me too.

In fact, Derek Jerek is the only marketing star in the United States among current major league players, and he’s nearing the end of his career. Jeter hauls in $9 million a year in endorsements for Nike, Gatorade, Ford, Movado and Avon. In his prime, he was on par with pre-scandal Tiger Woods and Greatest of All Time Roger Federer — the three megastars starred together in this ad for Gillette razors in 2009:

After Jeter, nobody comes close. Last year, Mauer made $4 million from Head & Shoulders, Nike, Gatorade and Rawlings. Alex Rodriguez added $2 million to his coffers with work for Nike, Rawlings, Topps and the coconut water company Vita Coco — though continuing those endorsements seems unlikely with the current news. Ryan Braun also made $2 million doing commercials for AirTran Airways and Nike but he may have been hurt by the leaked report that he tested positive for PEDs before an arbitrator ruled the test invalid.

After that, it’s a steep drop-off. Justin Verlander brought home about $800,000 last year from 2K Sports, Chevrolet, Reebok, Fathead and Fastball Flakes. Sabathia was right behind at $750,00 for lending his face to Pepsi, Electronic Arts and Nike, in addition to his work with Subway.

Outside the United States, Ichiro reportedly makes $7 million a year in endorsements in Japan, with Yu Darvish quickly trying to catch up. Johan Santana is a big star back home in Venezuela, but he sees nowhere near Ichiro-type endorsement money. Santana earns only $500,000 in ads for Venezuelan companies.

And what about Albert Pujols? Miguel Cabrera? Prince Fielder? Matt Kemp? Clayton Kershaw? Buster Posey? R.A. Dickey? Where are the mega-endorsement deals for those men? After Cabrera “won” the Triple Crown last season, sports marketers expected his memorabilia value to go up, but not necessarily the endorsement-deal dollars. One impediment to his endorsement success in the United States is that Cabrera speaks only halting English. Another may be his DUI and domestic violence arrests. But those factors don’t apply to the others.

After all, legal troubles off the court haven’t slowed down Kobe Bryant’s marketing train. The NBA star made more money in endorsements in 2012 than for playing basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers: $32 million in endorsement money, versus $27.8 million in salary. LeBron James has an even bigger spread: Last year, King James earned $40 million for ads and commercials, compared to $17.8 million for leading the Miami Heat to the NBA Championship.

So why aren’t baseball stars commanding these type of huge endorsement deals? In its recent story on the highest-paid NBA players, Forbes suggested that the enormous popularity of basketball in China is driving these mega deals for Kobe, LeBron and other NBA stars:

The popularity of U.S. hoops is only part of the story. The NBA is soaring in China, helping players land lucrative deals with shoe, beverage and car companies, as the brands fight to expand their reach in Asia. There are 300 million basketball players in China, according to the Chinese Basketball Association. Chinese companies are also tapping NBA stars for endorsement deals. Chinese athletic apparel firm Li-Ning signed Dwyane Wade in September to a long-term deal, worth an estimated $10 million annually.

Perhaps the lack of big endorsement money for Major League Baseball’s stars stems from baseball’s evolution into a uber-popular sport on the regional level, at the expense — somewhat — of its popularity on the national level.  I talked a bit about that back in November, when FOX reported that on average, only 12.7 million viewers in the United States watched the 2012 World Series. While national TV ratings declined, local TV ratings were quite strong in many MLB markets.

There’s also the matter of baseball’s popularity around the world. The sport is enormously popular in Japan and in Latin America. But Japan has its own leagues with its own stars who garner much of the advertising attention — save for Ichiro, and now Yu Darvish. And Latin America’s big baseball stars are rewarded back home, but at much lower dollar figures.

Baseball is popular outside the United States, but it’s not necessarily Major League Baseball. That’s one driving force behind the World Baseball Classic. But it’s a Catch-22. Many big-name American players choose not to play in the WBC because the risks outweigh the rewards. The lack of star power suppresses interest in the WBC, making MLB players less marketable abroad.

Perhaps it’s a simple as this: No major league player has had the star power and cross-over appeal of Jeter. Maybe Buster Posey is next big thing. Or maybe it will be Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, last year’s rookie phenoms who commanded national highlight shows and attention all season. Both young stars have only recently tipped their toes in the endorsement waters. Trout’s first big deal is with the sports drink company BodyArmour, which will pay him cash and give him an equity stake in the business. Harper has small deals with Topps and Under Armour sports wear, among others. His marketing agent, from Boras Marketing, says Harper intends to focus more on baseball than on commercials.

Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying MLB players simply don’t command the advertising dollars and attention that big-league stars did decades ago. And that may be just fine with them. After all, free agency and the lack of a salary cap mean higher salaries for the superstars of the game, as compared to what NFL and NBA stars earn from their on-the-field work. Whether that’s good for MLB in the long term remains to be seen.

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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.

39 Responses to “Will Trout & Harper Kick-Start MLB Endorsement Deals?”

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    • Chris says:

      You mean “didn’t I see Mike Trout win MVP in the Super Bowl”?

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        You mean “didn’t I see Mike Trout lose MVP in the Super Bowl as the voters roundly mocked statheads who live in their mother’s basements”?

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  1. Razor says:

    To give you some idea of how far the market has fallen, I hadn’t even heard of Derek Jerek before today.

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  2. Snake says:

    Trout’s people have dropped the ball endorsement wise big time.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      The people that think Mike Trout would/should be “Da Bomb” (dating myself there) are the same age group that root against people like Mike Trout because he’s too talented and nice.

      Bryce Harper on the other hand, has a real chance to be that “Can’t miss TV” guy, because if he continues to be himself, people will turn to root for AND against him.

      A couple of years ago, on every 12U (including 11U, 10U, 9U, etc) baseball diamond, half of the players had the ridiculous “Bryce Harper Eye Black” all over their faces .. and THAT was when he was an amateur!!!

      Harper has enough of “the edge” to just enthrall the young fans, and yet enough of the classic “balls to the wall” effort, hustle, kick you in the nuts, type play” to please the die hards.

      But whatever he does, he’s going to do it big. Hero, Goat, winner, loser. It’ll always be a show.

      I feel very fortunate to be an active fan at the start of these players’ careers. I hope I get to see their whole careers and I hope they’re awesome. I still remember when Eric Davis burst on the scene, and then when Junior did. Junior was BIG.

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      • snake says:

        Why would the same group that things he should market himself better be the same group that roots against him? I am rooting for him and would like to see him proactively broaden his reach instead of standing pat. If he gets injured and ends his career you can be sure he will regret not striking while the iron was hot.

        He is not capitalizing on his rising stardom and he is making poor choices like endorsing BodyArmour energy drink. When your biggest endorsement is an energy drink no one has heard of, you’re not doing it right. Also, now he won’t get big dollars from Gatorade or another energy drink since he is affiliated with the no name brand.

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  3. JR says:

    ‘After Cabrera “won” the Triple Crown last season’

    Why the quotes on won? Am I missing something? What part did he miss? BA check, RBIs check, HRs check. Its put as if its something people are saying that he did, but didn’t actually do.

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    • YanksFanInBeantown says:

      I think its to signify the pointlessness of the Triple Crown. Leading the league in BA, RBI and HR is meaningless, so can you really say that he “won” something?

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  4. Oh, Beepy says:

    I think it’s meant more in the sense that the triple crown is not an award that is ‘won’ in the way a silver slugger for instance is, but rather that triple crown is just a name given to the person whom, in the pursuit of their stated goal of assisting the team in winning at baseball, happened to lead in three offensive categories considered important. He didn’t ‘win’ a triple crown so much as ‘qualify’ for it.

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    • that guy says:

      Not to be a dick (which basically assures that whatever I say next will sound dickish, which is not my intent), but that’s wrong. One of the (widely used) definitions of “to win” is “to succeed in reaching a condition”. We have fairly simple and widely pre-agreed upon conditions for the Triple Crown. It has nothing to do with measuring utility in helping their team win (that’s the MVP, no?). It’s the designation ascribed to the player who leads the league in HR, RBI, and AVG. You can lament the absurdity of these goals, sure, but to deny that he succeeded in reaching those conditions is plain wrong, which is what you suggested. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown.

      It’s a curious line that stood out in an otherwise excellent examination of this topic.

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  5. jaysbluejays says:

    What’s wrong with baseball anyway? Haven’t they heard that the primary function of professional sports is to provide a platform for delivery of corporate advertisement? Until they tailor the sport to do a better job, how can they ever hope to compete with professional football or basketball?

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    • brownie31 says:

      Yeah, that’s kinda my thought too…let basketball have the advertising dollars, the entire sport has marketed itself as a star-driven, me-first league full of prima donna athletes. I just caught some Sportscenter during lunch, ESPN spent an entire segment, almost ten full minutes, on Lebron’s ‘remarkable’ 13-for-14 shooting night last night, showing every single shot he took and analyzing it to death. The NBA is driven by stars, it’s a Lebron/Kobe/Carmelo/Durant league. Baseball has some star power, obviously, but it’s a team game, and I’d like to keep it that way.

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      • David G says:

        “Whatever the reasons, there’s no denying MLB players simply don’t command the advertising dollars and attention that big-league stars did decades ago. And that may be just fine with them.”

        This doesn’t really say anything we didn’t already know. Should I be dismayed that two small paragraphs in the comment section contain more insight than the actual article?

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  6. B N says:

    I didn’t even reach where the article mentioned Brian Wilson before remembering this: http://withleather.uproxx.com/2011/10/the-dugout-who-can-make-me-vomit-first-taco-bell-or-brian-wilson

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  7. Ian T Roberts says:

    Pujols is probably baseballs second most recognizable star behind Jeter. I am surprised he isn’t raking in the cash with endorsement deals.

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  8. CircleChange11 says:

    Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are about as talented and cool as two baseball players could be.

    NOW, compare them to Blake Griffin and LeBron James.

    Compare them to RG3 and other young talent.

    Mike Trout is EXACTLY what we want him to be (or what fans claim they want), an incredibly talented player that’s as humble as he is talented. Unless he has the “Peyton manning funny bone”, he’s not an ideal spokesman.

    The best thing MLB could do for Harper’s endorsement future is to just turn him loose and let him be the arrogant prick he really wants to be.

    The day of “backwards hat Junior” are long gone. Nobody wants the fun loving mega-talent anymore. Not to give too much credit to WWE but “the bad guys are now the good guys”. An arrogant bat throwing, ball mashing, umpire arguing, highlight reel throwing Bryce Harper could get a lot of endorsements.

    FWIW, I have talked to some dads whose sons have played against Mike Trout growing up and they all say the same thing. Mike Trout is as nice as he is talented. That’s pretty amazing, but not an endorsement jackpot.


    Seriously, if baseball were cool and modern (they aren’t), they would turn Harper loose and pair him up with Trout as sort of a “Cain and Abel” type partnership. The devil on one shoulder, the angel (literally, Ha!) on the other. The possibilities are endless. The 20 and 21yo mega-talents as extreme opposites.

    Geez, it almost writes itself.

    The one thing they would agree on is “stealing is good”.

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    • YanksFanInBeantown says:

      Who says he wants to be an arrogant prick? As far as I’ve seen, Harper’s an incredibly talented 20 year old who has done nothing except play as hard as he possibly can since he got to the majors. Is how aggressively he does everything that he’s supposed to do as a young player a sign of arrogance? Or is it the fact that he has the fastest home run trot in the Major Leagues as he goes out of his way not to show up opposing pitchers?

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        I say “arrogant prick” as a compliment in athletics. By that I mean he likes to bark at umps, show emotion, blow some kisses to pitchers here and there, and do little things that make the Curt Schillings of the world say “I’d drill him”.

        IMO, Harper’s a dirtbag, and that’s the ultimate compliment in baseball. He’ll do little things to win the game, and he’ll do little things to gain a mental edge.

        The fact that he’s a mega-talent is just a huge bonus.

        IMO, he can be Griffeyesque in popularity. By that I mean he can get away with breaking the unwritten rules. Pro baseball players don’t wear their hats backwards, they don;t admire their home runs, etc. Then Griffey did it and it was awesome, almost overnight.

        Harper’s one of those guys that could do things like taunt/aggravate an opponent and have it be the coolest thing all week.

        I’m not saying he’s a jerk as a person. I’m saying on the field he can be emotionally intense, ultra competitive, and those qualities can be outstanding … as anyone my dad’s age will tell you of Pete Rose.

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      • Well-Beered Englishman says:

        But Bryce Harper doesn’t “like to” do that stuff. He blew a kiss at the pitcher once, and it was allegedly provoked.

        On the other hand, Bryce Harper DOES make little hand-claws while holding a rose between his teeth.

        Is this the face of an arrogant prick?

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      • YanksFanInBeantown says:

        I see what you’re saying; he plays like a Paul O’Neill or Pete Rose, a “gritty, gutty, grinder” so to speak, but with Mickey Mantle’s skill set.

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  9. Kenny Powers says:

    Endorsement deals are what derailed my entire career…

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  10. tylersnotes says:

    this article leads me to believe i could probably get a guy like octavio dotel to endorse me on LinkedIn for a couple hundred bucks

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  11. MrKnowNothing says:

    Basketball has always had an advantage over other sports when it comes to marketing. There are far fewer players in the league and on each team; the game is more easily dominated by a few players, so they can stick out more; their faces aren’t covered or obstructed at all; and there’s simply easier stuff to market. You want to run and jump fast like a basketball player? Buy his shoes!

    What are baseball players going to market? Bats and gloves and cleats? 1) those can be expensive and tend to last a while; 2) only people that play the game need them. EVERYONE needs some sort of athletic/gym/trainer shoe.

    The most marketable thing about baseball is the hat, and the players have nothing to do with that.

    +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. Mark says:

    I live in the uk and last year we had an advert with lebron and Lionel messi (soccer). Lots of basketball players are known in this country and Europe, especially after the Olympics. Sadly baseball doesn’t have anywhere near as much exposure. Even the NFL gets in on te act.

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  13. Jim Lahey says:

    What about the fact that MLBers have the longest/toughest schedule? This is my guess why MLB lags behind the other major sports. There just isn’t a great time during the season to record anything longer than 30 seconds.

    Also, the team’s make players already do promotional crap for their RSNs and I’d bet the majority of advertising money is spent on endorsing a team, not an individual. Fenway park for example…. every time you look at Fenway you can’t not look at the advertisements. They have an official Red Sox everything.

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  14. TKDC says:

    Though there are many factors, the hats/shades/eye black make it harder to know what the guys actually look like. In basketball, you see the players full faces all the time.

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    • Byrne says:

      hasn’t seemed to hurt Peyton Manning

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      • TKDC says:

        In football, the vastly more popular sport. And also the sport with the most focus on one position, the QB. Basketball has this in a way to, just it is “the scorer.” Baseball’s rules prevent players from being so important to success. Another of the many reasons.

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  15. Røark says:

    Are endorsements for non-profits counted as donations? Like CC for Boys and Girls club or Lester with Stand Up to Cancer?

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    • TKDC says:

      No. Just the same as if you volunteer for community service at Boys Club it is not.

      I’m assuming you mean for tax purposes, as giving time is donating in the true sense of the term.

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  16. Spit Ball says:

    Rafael Palmeiro doing PED commercials, whoda thunk it? He had a potient for all types of performance. He waved his finger at congress on steroids. He waved “lil(big) Rafael at the ladies all amped up on Viagra.

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  17. Northhampstonstead says:

    Who’s Roger Federer?

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  18. Tim says:

    I think we should consider putting some of the blame on sabermetrics. Baseball fans are getting more sophisticated, and the last thing any advertiser wants for an audience is sophisticated people. If you can evaluate a proposition based on evidence, you’re basically the enemy of 99% of advertisers. So it’s hardly a surprise that they prefer football and basketball.

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  19. Bubba says:

    Really liking these baseball-finance articles you’ve been writing Wendy.

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  20. dc says:

    with the exception of jeter, no other baseball player has come close to making big money in endorsements, when compared to basketball players. Sure kobe has been king the last decade, but lebron,rose,melo, durant etc all have lucrative endorsement deals.

    it comes down to product. basketball players are able to get their name on a shoe, which they can be seen wearing during the game and sold to the public. outside of jerseys and hats, this is hard to do in baseball.

    personally i think most endorsements are tasteless and cheesy and reek of desperation not only from the actual product but the player too. Not to be a complete dick, but joe mauer should focus on trying to live up to his contract (he wont) instead of selling shampoo.

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