Landing a national commercial deal with a company such as Subway is a testament to how big the Howard phenomenon has become.
In terms of marketing potential, this guy is a five-tool player: A star in his sport with brains, personality, a big smile and sound character.
"If he has another very good year, he'll get calls from all over corporate America," said Robert Tuchman, a sports marketing specialist from New York-based TSE Sports & Entertainment "He's got the ability to be a national figure."
No player in baseball enjoyed a bigger breakout in 2006. As good as he was in 2005, when he emerged from Jim Thome's shadow and clubbed 22 homers in 88 games to win the National League rookie-of-the-year award, he was better last year. He led the majors with 58 homers and 149 RBIs to win NL most-valuable-player honors.
A new baseball season begins tonight - tomorrow afternoon for the Phillies - and if Howard continues to be a force, and his track record suggests he will, his profile could rise not only on the field but off as well.
Howard, 27, seems to know this. Over the winter, he left noted baseball agent Larry Reynolds and hired the powerhouse Creative Artists Agency. Casey Close, a highly regarded baseball agent who counts Derek Jeter as a client, is part of CAA and oversees Howard's representation. CAA, which represents many Hollywood stars, has the resources to market Howard to the corporate world. The agency negotiated his deal with Subway, and Close said others are in the works.
"We're evaluating opportunities for him right now," Close said. "Ryan's done a lot of work on his own with his play and his achievements. We're here to provide some assistance in building his brand and brightening his star.
"There's no question he's got great potential in this area. He's one of the new faces of the game, and if he continues to progress as a player and person he could carry a large torch for himself and major-league baseball. It's a great privilege to have him."
Howard is ready to carry that torch.
"It's nice to branch out, and it's fun to do it," he said.
In addition to the Subway endorsement, CAA negotiated Howard's spot in a Super Bowl Sunday commercial for the NFL Network. CAA would not divulge Howard's fees for his work.
Before joining CAA, Howard landed two significant sponsorships after his MVP season. He will be featured over the next year in a series of advertisements for Verizon telecommunications in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. He also has an exclusive deal with trading-card giant Topps, which uses his picture on boxes of its 2007 series.
"There's a changing of the guard with new young stars coming into baseball, and we feel that Ryan is the face of that group," Topps spokesman Clay Luraschi said.
Howard also has an agreement with Mitchell Marketing, a national company that handles the sale of his memorabilia.
On the field, Howard has two primary endorsements. His spikes are made by Adidas. His batting gloves and wrist bands are made by Under Armour, which has to be loving the way its logo is featured on the cover of the Phillies 2007 media guide.
The battle for Howard's continued on-field endorsements could be fascinating. According to Close, his deals with Adidas and Under Armour expire after this season. Word in baseball circles is that Under Armour, a Baltimore-based company that has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, is eager to get Howard in its spikes, which it started making just this year.
Howard's marketability has also been recognized by the Phillies. In addition to being on the cover of their media guide, he is on some pocket-schedule versions and season-ticket information pamphlets. The Phillies have hooked three stadium giveaways - a baseball, a T-shirt and a bobblehead - to Howard this season. Phillies officials are quick to say that they are proud of all their core players (Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels and others) and that they try to promote all of them. There's no question, however, that having the reigning MVP is a boon to franchise visibility. And it doesn't hurt that he hits the ball a long way.
"Sluggers are huge draws," Tuchman said.
Tuchman's company specializes in matching Fortune 500 companies with endorsers from the sports world. Howard last year was billed as baseball's clean slugger. He did all his damage in the era of steroid testing. That swing, he has said many times, is all natural.
"His agents would be smart to market that to companies," Tuchman said. "Maybe whole-food companies. There's a wholesomeness to him."
If Howard's star continues to grow, he could be an interesting study on baseball players as pitch men. Baseball players have typically lagged behind other athletes in endorsement deals. For years, Cal Ripken was No. 1 for baseball players, bringing in an estimated $8 million to $10 million a year. Jeter, according to Forbes magazine, is now the leader at an estimated $6.5 million to $7 million a year in endorsements. (Ichiro Suzuki is the X-factor with big deals in Japan.) Jeter's take pales to the $90 million plus that Tiger Woods makes in endorsements.
"Ryan Howard has a chance to be big, but big in baseball is different than big in football and basketball," said Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for CNBC. "For some reason, people just don't view baseball players as go-to guys."
The Sports Business Daily recently surveyed a group of sports marketing executives and came up with a list of the most marketable athletes. Only Jeter made the top 10, ranking fourth behind Woods, Peyton Manning and LeBron James. Dwyane Wade, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tom Brady, Shaquille O'Neal and Maria Sharapova rounded out the top nine. Kobe Bryant, Brett Favre and Sidney Crosby tied for 10th.
With another big season and the exposure he's already getting in commercial ventures, Howard could crack that list soon.
"What he needs is to keep up his performance and come up with a big commercial and a good script that will allow his personality to come out," Rovell said. "That's what happened with Manning. People thought he was a dud, then he made a funny MasterCard commercial, and now he's everywhere."
Of course, everything starts on the field. Performance is the constant in every pitchman's portfolio. Jared doesn't hang with .220 hitters.
Howard, who will make $900,000 from the Phillies this season and hopes to score a lucrative long-term deal next winter, knows that.
"You've got to prioritize," he said. "You don't want to do this stuff during the season."
Close says he has no worries that Howard can maintain on-field excellence while he builds his brand off the field.
"That's almost unsaid when you're talking about athletes of this magnitude," he said. "They all know that first and foremost it's about performance. If the performance isn't there, the other opportunities won't come. Keep improving as a person and a player - that's always No. 1."
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Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury
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