Ryan Braun: The Brand, or “The Object Lesson of A-Rod”

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.

Matt teaches at The University of Alabama. Roll Tide. He specializes in American Literature and Rhetorical Economics. Fate chose for him the peculiar perdition of rooting for the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Clippers.

12 thoughts on “Ryan Braun: The Brand, or “The Object Lesson of A-Rod”

  1. dar34

    Great Article. However, I would not define Baltimore as a small market. Otherwise, only NY, LA, and Chicago are big markets.

    • Andrew

      I agree with you that the Orioles should not have been classified as a "small market" team during Ripken's tenure there; indeed, near the end of his career, the Orioles frequently had one of the highest payrolls in MLB. Today, though, I think the Orioles are closer to the Milwaukees and Kansas Citys of the world than they are to the big markets (to which I would add Philadelphia, by the way).

      A large part of this comes from the deteriorating fanbase. While no small part of that is self-inflicted, the rest of the wound comes from the presence of the Washington Nationals. As recently as 2000, there were Baltimore radio and TV affiliates as far south as South Carolina. Today, however, it's difficult to find a single radio outlet broadcasting Orioles games in Montgomery County, Maryland (DC suburbs), and pretty much everything further south of that is long gone.

      Obviously, I don't have access to the Orioles' revenue streams, but it seems to me that the fanbase has probably shrunk by 75% nationwide since 2000.

    • An interesting point which I had not seriously considered. I used census data for metropolitan areas to define the size of media markets. According the 2010 census, Baltimore and vicinity was the 20th largest market in the country and D.C. (w/ Arlington, Alexandria, etc.) was the 7th. However, I will grant if you go back to earlier censuses, Baltimore and Washington D.C. were frequently counted together, which would give them a rank as high as #4. So, I'd say your point is a valid one, although I sincerely doubt the Orioles ever capitalized on the D.C. market enough to out-earn teams like Philly, Boston, Atlanta, etc.

      • dar34

        I think that there is a difference (or should be) between market size and ability to capitalize on it. Baltimore has made themselves into an unmarketable product assuming that people would come to the great ballpark and to see Ripken. Put the same owners in NY and you will get similar results.

        By the way, I was ignoring Washington for the Ripken era and basing my original comment on
        http://www.baseball-almanac.com/articles/baseball

        One problem with basing market size on metro areas is that it works OK for teams in the east. But teams like StL have huge TV/radio markets fans that are willing to travel fairly long distances for games. Growing up in MO, I knew plenty of people that would drive 4-5 hours to StL for a game, stay the night, and drive back or stay around to see a day game, and then drive back.

        • I lived in the Lou for a long time and I would totally agree, except that even when you start adding the massive broadcast areas of teams like Cincinnati and St. Louis, you don't necessarily get big upswings in population. And, don't forget, big-market teams like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Braves all have enormous broadcast radiuses and attract far-flung fans as well, perhaps even moreso than the Cardinals.

  2. Ben

    I’m not sure how you don’t define Baltimore as a small market, a small city in a very small state with a fan base that’s not as big or as loyal as a few Triple-A teams.

  3. Frank S.

    Very interesting article. I never thought of it that way, but it makes a lot of sense. Call it the "Big Fish in the Small Pond" hypothesis. Also, A-Rod, for example, has to compete for local endorsement deals with guys like Jeter, 'Melo, Jeter, Eli, Jeter, Sanchez, and Jeter. Guys like Braun and Gwynn and Pucket and Ripken have/had fewer local sports icons to compete with.

    • Very good point. Baltimore now has an NFL team, but didn't during most of Ripken's career, and has never had an NBA or NHL franchise. San Diego has the NFL, but not the NBA or NHL. Milwaukee does have both NBA and NFL (assuming you count the Packers, which I guess is open for discussion). Braun is apparently on very friendly terms with Aaron Rodgers. I don't know if that's relevant or not.

  4. Jacques

    Very interesting article. . Anyways, formerly living in San Antonio, where there is no MLB, NFL, NHL teams, but only SA Spurs, I could make a connection that even though the SA has a much smaller market than nearby rivals Houston and Dallas, the franchise still thrives successfully both in the market and results (4 championships) due to the fans coming to watch Tim Duncan or Manu Ginobili. (Of course, NBA has a cap, but you get the connection). Not to mention that SA was thinking about relocated a decade ago.

    In terms of MLB, I would also add Joe Mauer to that list. Even though he is struggling currently and the fiasco of if he should remain as a catcher continues, Minnesota has been competing very well year after year, which probably led them to a new stadium recently. Of course, they are dead last as of right now, but same can happen for Milwaukee and Denver.

    • The Spurs comparison seems generally right to me. Although I would agree that Mauer is maximizing his brand appeal by staying in Minnesota, where his popularity is almost obscene. I would point out two things. First of all, Minneapolis-St. Paul may be bigger than you think. In 2010 it was the 16th largest metro area in the country, and growing. Also, Mauer totally maximized his salary, even though he stayed home. I mean, he put the Twins over a barrel.

  5. Joe Ely

    Terrific article, "Hippeaux"…I'm still umpiring at FOP and you are analyzing big time talent…way to go!!

    Braun is one smart dude. In contrast to "leveraging" his current talent for reliable, guaranteed income for the next 20 years, plus a platform for multiple endorsements during that time and beyond. Well done.

  6. titermogas

    awesome!!!

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