By Andrew Kahn
The latest issue of ESPN the Magazine ranked the 100 most famous active athletes in the world, taking into account endorsements, social media following, and Google search popularity. The list was most notable for who wasn’t on it: a baseball player. Not a single one. Not Mike Trout nor Bryce Harper nor Clayton Kershaw. There were eight NFL stars and 13 from the NBA on the list. (There were no hockey players, but this is a weekly baseball column. I can’t cure all of sport’s ills.)
The list is subjective and, in and of itself, unimportant. But it reflects a larger issue for baseball’s modern stars: relevancy, or the lack thereof.
Russ Spielman is the marketing director of The Legacy Agency, a big-time full-service firm that represents athletes from all sports, including baseball stars Madison Bumgarner, Carlos Correa, and Mookie Betts. If baseball players are in fact not as well marketed as football or basketball players, Spielman lists two potential reasons: scheduling and national appeal.
The baseball regular season is a daily grind for six months. “When a company says, ‘We need six hours for a commercial shoot,’ my answer is no,” Spielman says. A player likely arrives around 1 p.m. for a 7:00 night game and doesn’t leave the ballpark until close to midnight. In order to get sufficient sleep, that only gives a player a couple of hours in the late morning for off-field activities. Football players, on the other hand, almost always have Tuesdays off during the season. “That affords you more regularity and the ability to schedule when you have the entire day off,” Spielman says.
When asked if it’s harder to get endorsement deals for his baseball clients compared to other athletes, Spielman said it depends on the player. “It just seems that, for whatever reason, baseball is marketed a lot more locally instead of nationally. You can get away with using a (football or basketball) personality in a national campaign without offending local fans as much as baseball.” The implication is that marketing Tom Brady in New York is acceptable but using Derek Jeter to sell something in Boston is not.
Michael Fedele, VP of marketing for BodyArmor, agrees with the premise. His company makes sports drinks endorsed by athletes in all major sports, including MLB stars Betts, Trout, and Anthony Rizzo. BodyArmor leans heavily on local markets because there are more opportunities than there are nationally. This makes sense. Think about your viewing habits. When was the last time you watched a regular season baseball game that didn’t involve your favorite team? Baseball is a commitment—at least three hours a night, nearly every night, from April through September. Binge-watching the NFL on a Sunday or tuning in to a high-profile NBA match-up is commonplace; the baseball equivalent is not.
Even considering all that, it sure seems like Trout, in particular, should be a bigger name. There are endless ways to highlight the talent of the Los Angeles Angels center fielder. For brevity’s sake, consider the players most similar to him, through their age-24 seasons (Trout turned 25 last August) as computed by Baseball-Reference.com: Mantle, Griffey, Aaron, Robinson, Ott, Cabrera, Cepeda. Six are in the Hall of Fame; Miguel Cabrera is still playing but will join them as soon as he’s eligible.
Trout has endorsements: In addition to BodyArmor, he has deals with Nike, SuperPretzel, and, previously, Subway. (A spokesperson for the sandwich maker declined comment for this story, telling CBS Local, “We no longer work with athletes.”) His 2.26 million Twitter followers are the most in baseball. And yet, there’s something missing. A random person on the street, I’d bet, is more likely to identify LeBron James or Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or Peyton Manning, than Trout. Those names were not cherry-picked: They represent athletes who have won multiple MVP awards in the past decade.
Trout is still young and completely focused on baseball: “Our brand is about authenticity and credibility,” says Fedele. “You won’t get any outrageous quotes from Mike but his play is going to do the talking.” Fedele also points out that MLB is improving its social media and digital presence, which will only help grow the game, especially with young fans. And the future is bright: the 2015 All Star Game included 20 players who were 25 or younger. Harper, Correa, Betts, Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, and Corey Seager, to name six, are still that young.
Perhaps this crop of young stars will become household names in a way their predecessors never did. Or perhaps they will have to settle for local domination at the expense of national exposure. All that I ask is that no matter where you live or what team you root for, you find time to catch an Angels game. This Trout kid is really good.
Andrew Kahn is a regular contributor to CBS Local. He writes about baseball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com and you can find his Scoop and Score podcast on iTunes. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn