This is Ashley MacLennan’s first piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. She’ll be contributing regularly here over the next month. Read the work of all our residents here.
On any given day while scrolling through Twitter, you can see Anthony Rizzo hawking Body Armor hydration drink or Tempurpedic mattresses. Bryce Harper will share an ad for his custom UnderArmor cleats, while a few seasons ago Joe Mauer was the face – or more accurately the hair – of Head and Shoulders shampoo.
Athletes lending their profiles to sell goods is nothing new. It’s a way for players to capitalize on endorsement deals, growing their portfolios, and helping bolster their own image. Brands want to take advantage of the All-American ideal portrayed by a sports star, and lend credibility to their products by attaching a famous name to the deal. Marketing 101.
What happens, though, when a player is the brand? There’s an enormous difference between simply selling something for a company and selling yourself. Two players have demonstrated in the past year the remarkable ability to build their own brand narrative and control how they are perceived, rather than just being the face of a product.
MLB players haven’t become ubiquitous in popular culture the way stars in other sports have. While the players themselves have remarkable talent, and fans already watching the game will know the names Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Miguel Cabrera, but a casual observer or non-fan on the street would be hard pressed to pick those players out of a lineup. Whether it’s the structural problems the sport presents — star players are involved in a fraction of a Major League game, unlike in other sports, where teams can make sure their best players are involved on nearly every play — or the failings of the teams and the league itself to market their stars, baseball players just aren’t the marketing behemoths that basketball and football players often are.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities out there for players interested in marketing themselves, rather than leaving the heavy lifting to the league or their organization. What former Cubs catcher David Ross and Detroit Tigers second-baseman Ian Kinsler have done recently is demonstrate what happens when a player takes control of their own story, and uses the power of social media, television, and a bounty of available resources to help sell themselves (and perhaps a few products as well).
Kinsler has done well for himself on the field over the last several years, but has the kind of skills that often fly under the radar. He’s a career .275/.343/.448 hitter, a four-time All-Star, and a 2016 Gold Glove winner, but he’s not usually been regarded as a franchise player, despite performing like one. He’s precisely the kind of player who is beloved on his own team but gets little notice beyond that, in spite of turning highlight-reel double plays, or textbook perfect ball-drops.
Ian Kinsler is not a typical magnet for marketers. Because his appeal doesn’t have the same reach as bigger-name guys on the team like Miguel Cabrera or Justin Verlander, Kinsler is not the first choice for most companies. In spite of that, he has managed to craft an image for himself that mirrors his on-field persona.
In 2016, Warstic, the baseball bat company Kinsler co-owns with Ben Jenkins and White Stripes frontman Jack White, were approved for use in the MLB. Soon the bats were being sported by Kinsler and teammate Nick Castellanos in Tigers games and their popularity spread to other teams. Leading into the 2017 season, Kinsler and White loaned their individual talents to the promotion of Warstic by putting out a series of videos featuring Kinsler preparing for games as if he were a warrior heading into battle, while White’s music accompanied in the background. Kinsler, Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris, and Ben Jenkins were also featured in a short film ahead of the season in which the men learned sniper rifle techniques from Navy SEALs as a means to find their focus in the pressure of a game.
Even in a commercial where Kinsler promoted Beats by Dre headphones, his persona was the same. He is always careful about how he is portrayed, manipulating the medium to create a brand for himself. In every one of these ads he is the serious, contemplative warrior, preparing himself to face off against his enemies. The image crafted is that of a man who takes his sport and himself seriously. It is an effective method to maintain the image of a fierce competitor on the field, and a man whose life beyond the baseball diamond is a mystery, but one can almost picture him climbing onto a horse after the game and riding off into the sunset now that the battle is over.
Where Kinsler is intense and intimidating, former Cubs catcher David Ross has established himself as the loveable everyman, who is approachable, charming, and someone even a casual sports fan can find themselves falling in love with. Ross parlayed his role on the Cubs 2016 World Series victory team into a perfect example of catching lightning in a bottle.
Where his other teammates were still young and able to continue with the game, Ross understood his baseball years were over. A career .229/.316/.423 hitter, Ross spent most of his time in the majors as a backup catcher, playing for six teams, and never earning more than $3.1 million for a single season. He was not a superstar athlete. He does, however, have two World Series rings and an affable charm that makes him a perfect ambassador for unlikely baseball fans.
After a movie-perfect 2016 season, when most of the Cubs were home relaxing, Ross was working. He took the “Grandpa Rossy” image that made him a loveable star during the 2016 postseason, and turned it into a book deal, which itself then got a movie deal. He loaned his image to not one, but two cereals: Raisin Bran Crunch Apple Strawberry — which he promoted by inviting random Chicago commuters to join him for breakfast — and Grandpa Rossy Crunch.
— David Ross (@D_Ross3) May 16, 2017
The ultimate feather in Ross’s cap, however, was that he became the first Major League Baseball player to participate on ABC’s Dancing With the Stars, which he did almost immediately following the World Series. Ross, who made it to the Stars finale, won the hearts of viewers much as he did Cubs fans. The Dancing with the Stars finale netted about 8.8 million viewers, which is certainly much smaller than the 40.045 million who watch game seven of the World Series, but it was also a new audience Ross was appealing to. That pay wasn’t bad either. Though there are no hard and fast numbers, it appears participants who make it to the final round earn about $345,000.
Between the book deal, the promotions, the Dancing with the Stars appearances, and his new job as an ESPN commentator, Ross has managed to turn himself from a likeable bench player into an actual celebrity, despite being the kind of player who usually toils in obscurity.
While some players are content to lend their faces to a product, Kinsler and Ross have shown that there are ways for Major League players to build their own identities and market themselves outside of the game. With Major League Baseball struggling to connect fans its best players, perhaps the next generation of players will be more aggressive in marketing themselves.
Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome