June 21, 2011
Last week, Sports Illustrated unveiled its annual Fortunate 50, a list which documents the 50 highest earning American athletes with respect to the sum of salary and endorsement earnings. On this list are three golfers, three NASCAR drivers, eight NFL players, 17 MLB players, and 19 NBA players. From this standpoint, it would seem as if the MLB is ably treading water with respect to having marketable stars; one would expect it to be right about on point with the NBA with both leagues’ being ahead of the NFL where players do not have guaranteed contracts, are buried under masks and pads, and have to split revenue between 53 active roster members of each team. Further, much more so than those of the NBA and MLB, NFL fans root for laundry as opposed to individual talent.
While close to the NBA in players with high total earnings, upon closer inspection the MLB is lagging significantly behind the NBA with regards to player marketability. In the NBA, 10 players on the list grossed in excess of $1,000,000 in endorsements: LeBron James ($30,000,000), Kevin Garnett ($14,000,000), Dwyane Wade, ($14,000,000), Kevin Durant ($14,000,000), Dwight Howard ($12,000,000), Kobe Bryant ($10,000,000), Amar’e Stoudemire ($8,000,000), Carmelo Anthony ($6,000,000), Tim Duncan ($3,500,000), and Vince Carter ($3,000,000). It is fairly safe to assume that Derrick Rose, who has a big contract with Adidas, and Ron Artest, who has a deal with the Chinese sneaker company Peak, do as well but did not qualify for the list because of their salaries. In contrast, only four MLB players on the list grossed over $1,000,000 in endorsements: Derek Jeter ($10,000,000), Albert Pujols ($8,000,000), Alex Rodriguez ($4,000,000), and Ryan Howard ($1,500,000).
On SI’s international list, meanwhile, three NBA players likely qualified for over $1,000,000 in endorsements (Dirk Nowitzki, Yao Ming, and Pau Gasol) while two MLB international players (Ichiro Suzuki and Miguel Cabrera) also most likely achieved this milestone.
How big of a problem is it for the MLB that it objectively does not have young, marketable stars? Derek Jeter, who is entering the twilight of his career, is baseball’s highest endorsement earner but grossed less than five NBA players. A-Rod and Ichiro are also on the downside and it is hard to see Pujols, Cabrera, and Howard ever becoming more marketable than they are now. Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether the issues pertaining to MLB players’ lack of marketability are systemic or circumstantial and what impact this will have on the broader appeal of the sport.
As we move toward the future, the best case for baseball is that the individual player marketability issues are circumstantial. To elaborate, this would mean that for whatever reason the current crop of players are deficient in personality and that this is a short-term problem that will be fixed by both time and smarter marketing. Maybe the MLB will relax its draconian Youtube policy to more effectively reach its younger fan base, players will have better media training and be more accessible off the field, and the league will get lucky and have an influx of young, vibrant, and personable talent in major markets. With good luck, forward thinking, and attention to detail, the MLB could address its player marketability issues within five years and position itself to continue to thrive in the 21st Century.
In contrast, the worst case for baseball is that these issues are systemic and will prove drastically harmful to the sport’s overall viewership. In this case, the reasons for lack of MLB player endorsements extend far beyond the current crop of talent and causes baseball to enter into a period of substantial long-term decline. Here, the game stays slow and boring and nothing is done to speed it up, internet video policy remains archaic and detrimental to growth, and the players continue to fail to resonate with both American and international consumers.
As more and more people grow up accustomed to constant stimulation, the MLB is going to have to adapt if it wants its stars to be marketable and its overall game to flourish. Right now, it does not have a huge incentive to change because, despite all of its cosmetic issues, franchises continue to print money, in many cases undeservedly. It would be a mistake, though, for Major League Baseball to assume that just because it has been popular in America for a long time and is presently financially successful, it is entitled to future success. Boxing and horse racing were once immensely popular American sports and now occupy specialized niches. For baseball to thrive going forward, it needs to reform its issues sooner rather than later to make its talent more marketable.