O's Mussina is pitching for ads, too Postseason success key to endorsements

October 11, 1997|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

More than just the hearts of Orioles fans will be on the line when Mike Mussina takes the mound today against the Cleveland Indians.

For Mussina and a handful of other prominent Orioles, the postseason represents a rare opportunity to attract national attention and the lucrative endorsement contracts that can follow.

"It would help them tremendously. Everyone knows the Orioles locally and regionally, but if they can make it to a World Series, it would give a few of them a shot at making it to the next level," said Stephen L. Disson, president of D&F Consulting in Washington, a firm that lines up athletic endorsers for companies.

Mussina faces the Indians' Orel Hershiser in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series at 4: 15 p.m. at Cleveland's Jacobs Field. The best-of-seven series is tied 1-1 following the Indians' comeback, 5-4 victory Thursday night at Camden Yards.

The appetite of national sponsors for baseball players is limited to a handful of telegenic superstars, such as Ken Griffey. That's partly a function of the regional nature of baseball, where fans and broadcasts rarely reach beyond the boundaries of a team's hometown.

"The ratings in baseball are terrible," Disson said.

Also, the NBA and, to a lesser extent, the NFL, have done a much better job of marketing their stars as national phenoms.

Consequently, a player such as Mussina may be revered at Camden Yards but unknown in Peoria. And corporate sponsors don't care about a player's earned run average. They look to his "Q" rating, a statistical measurement of an athlete's face recognition and "likability" compiled by polling firms.

Nothing builds up Q numbers like the postseason.

The World Series attracts 30 million viewers, many of whom haven't seen another game all season. That is at least 10 times the number of viewers of a redular-season Orioles game. A gutsy, clutch performance that might rate sports-page coverage back home during the regular season can end up on the front page of papers across the country and in network news broadcasts.

"For Mike, the postseason is critical," said Ira Rainess, a Baltimore-based attorney who coordinates commercial contracts for Cal Ripken and who recently signed on Mussina as a client.

Mussina would seem to have a lot of what a sponsor would want. He's bright and handsome and has the winningest record in the major leagues among active pitchers.

But several factors work against him, including a lack of big-game performances and the fact that he plays in a medium-sized market removed from the media/advertising centers of New York and Los Angeles.

He seems to have addressed the first point soundly in the Seattle series, beating Randy Johnson twice. And pitching a memorable game in the national spotlight of a World Series would help overcome the second.

"We're already getting calls from companies planning their 1998 campaigns," Rainess said. "He hasn't up until this year been that recognized outside of the baseball world."

Experts say a couple of Orioles could draw valuable attention if the team makes it to the World Series. Brady Anderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Scott Erickson -- even Davey Johnson -- all could generate at least some regional sponsorships, which could translate into a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

"If the Orioles win the World Series, any one of those guys can go on the rubber chicken circuit and make $25,000 a week attending dinners, and card shows and promoting local car dealers. People will remember the season for years and revere those guys," said Marty Blackman, head of the New York-based Blackman & Raber, which matches advertisers with sports figures.

Breaking into the upper echelon of endorsements is much harder, but can be accomplished. An athlete is considered a commercial superstar when he is hired to pitch non-sports products -- not just shoes and bats -- to a national audience.

In Baltimore, the closest anyone comes to that distinction is Ripken, who promotes Sprint, Chevrolet, True Value Hardware, Allied-Signal (Fram auto parts), Nike, Oakley, Rawlings and a regional milk bottlers association. He also signed a regional deal recently to promote Crestar bank, a multiyear contract that experts say is probably worth a few hundred thousand dollars a year.

Ripken could see his value enhanced if he continues his strong showing in the playoffs. His Q ratings put him among the top athletes in the country for recognizability -- a category led by Michael Jordan, who earns $40 million a year from endorsements -- but he still lags behind other superstars when it comes to ad appeal.

Forbes magazine estimated Ripken's off-field income last year was $6 million, much of it from sales of licensed memorabilia, ranking him 14th among athletes.

"Is he at the highest point among endorsers? No, he is not at the highest point. If they win the World Series, and he contributes dramatically, he could move up," Blackman said.

"Remember what the advertiser wants: He wants instant recognition so that you buy his product over someone else's. He wants you, walking down the aisle of the grocery store, seeing Cal's face on a bag of crunchies and buying it," he said.

The sports world is full of talented athletes who turn out to be endorsement duds.

Some lack the temperament or the looks. Others may suffer from embarrassing misstep -- Roberto Alomar's spit heard 'round the world, for example -- that will keep conservative corporations away.

And still others will just never rise above the clutter in the competition for sponsors because their teams don't win a championship.

Mussina will be a key to that tonight, for himself and his teammates.

"A charismatic guy can rise above that but it's harder. Even postseason is not enough. You've got to win it. You've got to be a champion," Blackman said.

Pub Date: 10/11/97

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