Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Yasiel Puig #66 of the Los Angeles Dodgers poses for a portrait during spring training photo day at Camelback Ranch on February 17, 2013 in Glendale, Arizona.
As the second half of the L.A. Dodgers season was set to get under way Friday afternoon in Washington D.C., there was one player fans would be watching more than any other: Yasiel Puig.
This week Puig hired a new marketing agent to capitalize on his meteoric rise, but his commercial future may not necessarily be a home run.
When Puig was called up from Double-A Chattanooga in early June, the Dodgers were stuck in last place. Then, Dodger disappointment instantly gave way to Puig mania when the 22-year-old belted two home runs in only his second game.
Now the Dodgers are on the brink of first place. Their games are selling out and they’re getting the highest TV ratings in four years. Viewership is up 6 percent since mid-June.
Despite only playing a fraction of the season, Puig’s jersey is the 10th highest selling in major league baseball.
“Everything gravitates towards him,” said Alex Radetsky, president and founder of Radegen Sports Management, which signed Puig this week. “He’s outgoing. He’s extremely likable, a good looking kid with a million dollar smile.”
It will be Radetsky’s job to turn that million-dollar smile into multimillion-dollar endorsements.
Puig is already rich. He was playing baseball in Mexico last year when the Dodgers lured him in with a seven year, $42 million contract without ever seeing him play in a game.
Radetsky reportedly beat out many others who wanted to represent Puig, including the rapper Jay Z.
“I wasn’t aware of any competition, but I’m sure he was in the picture just like others,” said Radetsky.
Radetsky said he met Puig through a mutal acquaintance, which he won’t name. The New York-based agent also represents David Ortiz and Jose Bautista.
Puig has one year left on a Nike deal, but other than that he has a clean slate.
“If we didn’t say we wanted to strike right now while the iron was hot, that would be misleading,” said Radetsky. “You want to make sure he doesn’t miss out on opportunities.”
Companies face dilemma of striking first versus waiting too long
Companies looking to sign Puig might not be in such a hurry.
“If I was a brand looking at him, I’d probably wait,” said Bill Glenn, senior vice president of The Marketing Arm, an advertising firm that’s part of Omnicom Group.
Glenn says he has no doubt that Puig has a tremendous upside. But he’s only played in 38 games, which isn’t much of a sample size.
Signing him to any longterm deals would be risky.
“Impactful celebrity endorsers aren’t made over six weeks,” said Glenn.
Companies face a dilemma though: If they wait and Puig continues to shine, his price could go up.
The team’s performance is also important, says Marc Ippolito, president of Burns Entertainment, which helps match brands with celebrities.
Companies want baseball stars to still be on TV in October.
“It’s better when they’re still on the national stage so that when more of the public is watching the playoffs and the World Series, you have someone up there who has their story told over and over again,” said Ippolito.
Much of Puig’s story remains a mystery. He rarely grants interviews, and when he does, they’re in Spanish.
Agent: "The really good deals are far and few between"
Longtime talent agent Marc Perman says the Dodgers are wise to limit Puig’s interviews.
“He just needs to play ball,” said Perman. “At this early point he should let his game speak for itself. There’s plenty of time to do the media stuff later.”
Perman calls Puig’s marketing prospects “enormous,” if he continues to play well. He advises Puig to seek out national endorsement deals to distinguish himself from lesser players who do local advertising.
But he says there’s a common misconception that athletes have a plethora of options to choose from. In reality, the choices are more limited.
That’s because advertisers go after athletes to fit a specific campaign, not the other way around.
“You don’t necessarily have 20 companies calling you,” said Perman. "It isn’t such a sellers market that you’re turning down all these deals. The really good deals are far and few between, so when you have a good one you make the most of it.”
Athletes making less endorsement money
The amount teams pay athletes continues to skyrocket — thanks to the infusion of cable TV money — but Perman says most athletes are making considerably less off the field because companies now spread their ad budgets out across many different mediums.
That’s bad news for Puig.
“He’s not going to be playing in the same size sandbox that players did in the 90’s, which is probably the peak of this whole business,” said Perman.
Perman says the Hispanic market, despite its rapid growth, still isn’t big enough to make a major impact on Puig’s deals.
And there’s some evidence his heritage could actually hurt him with marketers.
ESPN recently commissioned a study looking at the top 125 richest athletes.
It found being Hispanic reduces earnings by an average of 42 percent.
“It was really interesting and a bit surprising to us,” said Jeff Phillips, a principal at the Parthenon Group consulting firm, who conducted the study.