— During the All-Star Game on Tuesday, expect a number of Latino players — such as Dominican Republic native Jose Bautista, whose home-run prowess prompted a record 7.4 million votes on his behalf — to shine on the field.
Just don’t expect them to appear in commercials between innings.
More than a quarter of big leaguers are Latino, and they are well-represented every year during the Midsummer Classic. But when it comes to endorsements and merchandising popularity, Latino players seem to be left behind.
Not only are New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols the sole Latino ballplayers raking in millions of dollars in endorsements, they were the only Latinos ensconced on the Top 20 list of Major League Baseball jersey sales last year.
Why aren’t companies and fans embracing Latino players?
“They are extremely marketable. The only challenge for some is their command of English,” says Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a sports-marketing firm in Hollywood, Fla. “Fans want to feel a connection to their favorite players, and eliminating a language barrier significantly accelerates that bonding.”
Atlanta Braves shortstop Alex Gonzalez — who grew up in Venezuela and signed with the Florida Marlins at age 17 — points out that even Spanish-language players who have learned English can be hesitant to put it on display.
“You might have guys come to you who say, ‘Hey, we want to do a commercial with you.’ But maybe you’re scared, because you don’t know how to speak perfect English to be on TV,” Gonzalez said.
Born and raised in the United States, A-Rod’s English is flawless. In fact, he is so polished that his appeal transcends race, much like Tiger Woods (though both, of course, have suffered severe marketing setbacks, thanks to a steroids expose and a sex scandal, respectively). Rodriguez sits fifth on Sports Illustrated’s Fortunate 50 list of top-earning athletes.
But a closer look reveals a not-so-impressive impact on the marketing side.
The member of the exclusive 600-home-run club plays for one of the world’s most famous teams in the media capital of the country, yet his $4 million in endorsements a year pales compared to what’s pulled in by a pro golfer with one major victory (Jim Furyk, $9 million) and a small-market NBA forward (Kevin Durant, $14 million).
Pujols’ $8 million in endorsements ranks second in baseball to Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter’s $10 million. But one may ask: Why wouldn’t his off-the-field income surge even higher? After all, the Dominican-born Pujols has been the best player in baseball over the past decade, driving in more than 100 runs every year, batting higher than .300 each season and bringing home three most valuable player awards. Companies yearn for predictable behavior away from the diamond, and he’s been as controversial as a bookcase.
Aside from the impediment of English as a second language, some players raised in Latin America and other Spanish-speaking outposts have created problems on their own. Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs became one of the most popular players in the game until he was dogged by allegations of steroid use (he tested positive for using a performance-enhancing drug in 2003). Because of a lack of documentation or forged papers, the ages of Latino players are sometimes disputed, which can hamper trustworthiness. Still, if convicted felon and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick could land an endorsement deal with Nike — one of the champion sports brands — earlier this month, shouldn’t star Latino ballplayers, even those beset with troubles, be more in demand?
For its part, MLB says it has tried to help Latino players assimilate. As MLB's executive vice president of labor relations Rob Manfred noted in an article last year, “Every single Dominican operation that is run by a Major League Baseball club has English courses available for the players there. The same is true in Venezuela." And it’s tried to appeal to Spanish-speaking fans for well over a decade, whether by holding exhibition series in Mexico and Venezuela, developing a Spanish-language version of MLB.com and by ensuring that games are broadcast in places like Puerto Rico.
Yet despite their relative scarcity, Asian players — such as Ichiro Suzuki — seem to be embraced with far greater ease than Latinos. Nearly a year ago, Chicago White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen lashed out at MLB, questioning why Asian players always appeared with their own translators to deal with the media and others, while Latino players had none. Commentators pointed out that Asian players paid for the translators and were generally more prepared for baseball’s beyond-the-diamond demands, having played in top-level leagues in Japan and Korea before switching to MLB.
The question arises: Given how hard it is for Latinos to get a foothold on the marketing side, can anyone replace Rodriguez and Pujols — who are both in their 30s — as they age? There are a few candidates:
Adrian Gonzalez: Two years ago as a slugger with the San Diego Padres, he had all of one endorsement — with a construction company. This despite being born in San Diego and graduating from a U.S. high school after spending 12 years of his youth in Tijuana. Gonzalez’ move to Boston has boosted his appeal, however. He is the centerpiece of a marketing campaign with Boston-based Eastern Bank that began this month, signed an endorsement pact with Gargoyles Performance Eyewear and agreed to appear in Dunkin’ Donuts commercials. Granted, none of these are akin to being plastered on a Wheaties box, but put the affable Gonzalez in a World Series or two and his national marketing appeal would climb.
Carlos Gonzalez: With a monster 2010 season, Colorado's star outfielder landed a deal as a Gillette Young Gun, which included a television commercial. The Venezuela native signed a seven-year deal with Colorado, so the fact he’s not embedded on either coast during his prime may limit endorsement opportunities.
Jose Reyes: His prospects are somewhat uncertain at the moment since he will be a free agent at season’s end. But the Dominican Republic native — a fixture as the New York Mets shortstop since 2003 — has proven appeal, signing deals to endorse Under Armour and SoNu Beverages in 2009.
No doubt the Latino players face an uphill battle in being loved. Even Arizona, the site of this year’s All-Star Game, is seen as a slap in their faces by many, given the state’s controversial law against illegal immigrants. Jonathan Mahler just penned a New York Times piece pointing out that MLB has been forever remiss in acknowledging contributions of Latino players. And though Mahler believes it’s past time for Latinos to be more out front on the endorsement side, he’s not optimistic that change is coming.
“There are some attitudes toward Latin players that they’re not as hard-working or not as disciplined as hitters. Those stereotypes endure,” Mahler said. “In New York, you see (Mets’ third baseman) David Wright and Derek Jeter a lot on billboards, the iconic American boys. Companies turn to a baseball player for an All-American image.”
In other words, for Latino players, procuring an all-star performance off the field is as distant as a Jose Bautista moonshot.