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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.