However, according to Sports Illustrated*, A-Rod’s endorsement deals have gone down instead of up over the last five years. Anthony and especially Lebron have also seen their reputations and nationwide marketability suffer during the anticipation and fallout from their relocation projects. Perhaps none are beyond repairing their images and could even rise to new heights, but their experiences, alongside those of other journeymen superstars like Terell Owens, Manny Ramirez, and Allan Iverson, should give the next generation pause.
Braun and the man he beat out for the NL Rookie of the Year in 2007, Troy Tulowitzki, have both agreed to deals that pretty much assure they will spend their entire careers with the same organization and will not challenge any of the existing salary bars, though their age and productivity suggests they might’ve been candidates to do so. Neither plays in one of the top twenty media markets in the country.
One might conclude that they’ve put baseball before brand; that in Milwaukee and Denver they see both the opportunity for consistent competitiveness and the absence of distractions. But, quite to the contrary, Braun at least is one of the most brand-concious athletes in baseball. He told Athlete’s Quarterly,
“I never want to be defined as a baseball player. I don’t say that to disrespect the game in any way. I love baseball. But I want to apply my education to all of my interests and to grow as a person. It’s very important to me…Fortunately, my baseball career has given me the opportunity to leverage my brand and my name to create these things without having to invest my own money. However, I am investing my name and reputation into them.”
“These things” he’s talking about include a designer clothing line, an energy drink, and three Milwaukee-area restaurants. And one would guess, at just 27, Braun imagines much more. Why, then, has he chosen to limit the range of his appeal by agreeing to spend the next decade in Milwaukee?
Well, perhaps because he realizes that it isn’t necessarily a limitation. In fact, some of the most successful baseball brands of Braun’s youth came from small markets. Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn, perennial All-Star ballot darlings themselves, proved one could gain nationwide popularity, could even become the face of the game, without playing in one of the twenty largest markets. In fact, one could argue that Gwynn and Ripken both built national celebrity by virtue of their perceived loyalty to their humble homes. They buoyed long-running local endorsement deals into contracts with multinationals like Coca-Cola, Nike, and Holiday Inn, as well as, of course, MLB itself. A decade after the end of their playing careers, they are holding down some of the cushiest broadcasting gigs and commanding as much as $50,000 a day for speaking engagements and public appearances. Ripken, who made “just” $70 Million in salary during his 20 seasons, now owns a minor-league franchise and has publicly voiced his desire to buy the Orioles (though one imagines he would, like Nolan Ryan, be connected to group of investors).
Like his contract, Ryan Braun’s commercial ambitions extend beyond his baseball career. As such, perhaps Ripken and Gwynn, are good role models. However, as great a player as Braun is, maybe even a superior all-around player, he doesn’t exactly have the same “hook.” He’s not going to win half-a-dozen batting titles or chase .400 or play 2,000 straight games or set new offensive standards for his position. Also, he’s not quite as charismatic as Gwynn or as understated as Ripken. He’s already suffered criticism for having confidence bordering on arrogance. Can one really become a national icon from a minor market without extraordinary charm?
The question actually is, does it really matter? The perception of loyalty is worth millions closer to home.
Consider Barry Bonds, who, despite having a abyssmal national reputation and an indictment hanging over him, leveraged his extraordinary popularity in San Francisco into multi-million dollar endorsement contracts, even in the final years of his career. Colorado’s “Toddfather,” Todd Helton, whose policy of deferring salary may have inspired Braun and Tulowitzki, has seen his production wane considerably in the latter half of his career and is no longer a household name outside of Colorado, but makes more in endorsements than many perennial All-Stars.
Although they benefit from special circumstances, we could also cite Ichiro Suzuki, who has the second-biggest brand in baseball, benefitting not only from his long association with Seattle, but international marketability, and Derek Jeter, who has used franchise loyalty and the nation’s largest market to become the league’s most profitable endorser.
Braun’s ability to build his brand from the modest confines of Milwaukee may be the perfect test for this hypothesis: if you don’t go to the money, the money will come to you.
*My claims about endorsement earnings come primarily from annual estimates published by Sports Illustrated and Forbes.