It’s no secret that America’s Pastime is still on the search for the next face — or faces — of the game. Derek Jeter held the position for over two decades. In the wake of his retirement, the MLB has been left with a surge of young talent, but is waiting on that one player to match the production, personal brand, and genuine luck that may be necessary to replace The Captain.
According to Forbes, Jeter was bringing in $9 million per year in endorsement earnings at the time of his retirement — more than twice that of any current player in 2015. While the MLB has more players earning over $20 million in salary this season than any other major American sport, the players rank well behind their counterparts in terms of endorsement dollars.
Premier athletes in the PGA, ATP, NFL, NBA, UEFA, and NASCAR are significantly outpacing the top MLB stars, according to our Top 100 Highest-Paid Athlete Endorsers of 2015. Rather than landing near the top of the list, baseball’s top earners can be found on similar ground as NHL, Boxing, and UFC athletes.
Baseball’s top endorsement earner and beloved Boston slugger, David Ortiz, lands at No. 56 overall with $4 million in off-field earnings. In total, just twelve MLB players crack the Top 100, with six ranking between Nos. 91 and 99.
In an interview with Forbes, Amm’s Nick Gregorian, who manages marketing for several MLB stars, offered several explanations for baseball’s struggle for endorsement dollars.
“Baseball is provincial. Players have access to local deals, but there are few baseball players that resonate across the U.S. and can secure national ad campaigns that pay mid-six figures. A 162-game schedule over 180 days also puts time at a premium for players during the season. It is a tough sell for players to relinquish a rare off day (some of those 18 non-gamedays are travel days) to film a TV ad or pose for a print campaign for a five-figure payout, particularly if they already make $20 million a year in salary.”
Gregorian points to the lack of established personal brands that players have prior to finding success in the majors. Baseball players typically spend several years in the minor leagues before making the jump to Major League Baseball. While this prepares players for success, it keeps them under-the-radar for casual fans.
“Basketball and football players have a brand before they are even drafted by their pro teams because people watch them in college,” he says. “They can create a stronger affinity earlier on.”
Another contributing factor may be the lack of consistent appearances from the game’s stars on the biggest stage — the World Series. The stars alined for Jeter as he made his first World Series appearance as a rookie in 1996, then made consecutive appearances from 1998-2001, appeared again in 2003, and once again in 2009.
The most successful endorsement stars in other sports tend to make championship appearances early and often. LeBron has now appeared in five consecutive NBA Finals. Before LeBron, Kobe Bryant’s Lakers made it to the Finals seven times in eleven years. Before Bryant, Jordan dominated the 1990s. Before Jordan was Bird and Magic, and so on. By making it to the NBA Finals, the Super Bowl, or the World Series, players are exposed to more viewers nationwide, and have the opportunity to earn the one of, if not the most valuable label in sports — a winner.
Baseball’s current parity has made championship runs like the Yankees’ from 1998-2001 unprecedented. While parity is great for passionate fans and the league as a whole, it certainly makes the national audience more elusive for the game’s premiere players.
The Top 4
While baseball is still searching for its next transcendent star, the game is not short on talent or production. The sport’s four highest-paid endorsers in 2015 lead the way by a significant margin. David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Miguel Cabrera, and Albert Pujols all claim illustrious careers. Whether it be record-breaking numbers, championship contributions, or becoming icons in their respective cities, each has earned their spot on the endorsement ladder.
Ortiz signed with the Red Sox in 2003 and the rest is history. By breaking the Curse of the Bambino, winning three World Series rings, and one World Series MVP, Big Papi has earned his place in Boston lore.
Known as one of baseball’s most fun-loving and charitable players, Ortiz has found success in working with both local and national brands for endorsement campaigns. Recently, the nine-time All-Star teamed up with Rob Gronkowski and Dunkin’ Donuts for a series of ridiculous ad spots.
Sitting at No. 2 in baseball and No. 63 overall, Cano also sports an impressive endorsement portfolio. Cano’s move from New York City to Seattle appears to have had no negative effect on his off-field earnings, with his endorsement dollars growing each of the past two years.
Becoming the first Triple Crown winner since 1967 can’t hurt, right? Miggy caught fire in 2013 and hasn’t stopped since, winning two American League MVPs to go with his 2003 World Series ring. The .321-career-batter overcame alcohol abuse in 2010 and now maintains a well-regarded public image.
Cabrera has proven to not only be one of baseball’s most popular players, he has also provided one sponsor, Oakley, a pricelessly authentic endorsement. After being struck in the eye by a ground ball, Cabrera credited his Oakley sunglasses for protecting him, insisting that without the performance frames, the ball would have shattered his eye socket.
The Machine is a two-time World Series champion and has long been regarded as one of the great talents in baseball. Pujols has racked up a never-ending list of personal accolades and played in the baseball hot-bed of St. Louis before inking a 10-year $254 million deal with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Throughout the years, Pujols has earned endorsement deals with Nike, Rawlings, Upper Deck, and Got Milk?, with Nike accounting for the majority of his career endorsement earnings.
Baseball’s next marketing star
Baseball’s search for Jeter’s replacement may not last long. There’s certainly no shortage of upcoming candidates in what ESPN’s Jayson Stark has deemed to be “the deepest group of young hitters in a generation,” in addition to a wealth of pitchers nearing their peak years.
There are too many rising stars to name a definitive list. Any compilation will start with the established studs of Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Giancarlo Stanton. Nipping at the headliners’ heals, there lies a strong collection of up-and-comers in Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, George Springer, José Altuve, Manny Machado, Joc Pederson, and Nolan Arenado, to name a few.
Harper, Trout, and Stanton could already make a case for standing among the league’s most marketable stars. However, their endorsement earnings are not reported, or they are so young in their careers that their earnings have yet to match their marketing potential. As deals from blue-chip brands like Nike, MusclePharm, and Tag Heuer continue to come their way, expect their earnings to quickly catch up to the game’s current leaders.
Each is on his way to a successful, decorated career. But will any make the leap to be the next face of baseball? In Jeter, baseball had a young talent who found instant success and World Series heroism. He was lucky enough to play on America’s most popular team, in its biggest city, during an unprecedented run of success. His greatness was reflected in highlight-reel plays on the biggest stage. Simply put, Jeter became an icon.
This batch of young players appears destined for greatness. In today’s interconnected world, players have the opportunity to connect with and grow their fan bases like never before. Perhaps one will reach Jeter’s individual iconic status, but the group itself seems destined to match and exceed the success of baseball’s current endorsement marketing leaders.
This article was contributed to by Jonathan Schaffer.