MVP award would enhance marketability, increase national appeal for Pirates' McCutchen

Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen could enhance his national profile if, as many expect, he is named the National League's Most Valuable Player tonight by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

He could enhance his bottom line, too.

Mr. McCutchen, the charismatic ballplayer with trademark dreadlocks and an ear-to-ear smile, is a favorite to win the annual award after leading the Pirates to their first playoff appearance and winning season in 21 years. St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt also are finalists for the award.

Bob Dorfman, executive creative director for San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, said Mr. McCutchen could add as much as $1 million to his lifetime earnings by adding "MVP" to his resume.

Still, that is just a fraction of what he would earn in another sport.

The most marketable football player, four-time MVP Peyton Manning, earns more than $15 million each year from endorsements. Basketball star LeBron James, who owns four MVP awards, earns between $40 million and $50 million each year in endorsement dollars.

The highest-earning endorser in Major League Baseball, New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, earned $9 million in 2012 in endorsements, according to Forbes magazine. His teammate Ichiro Suzuki, with $6 million, was the only other baseball player to earn more than $2.5 million in endorsements.

Most of baseball's elite players earn less than $1 million annually in sponsorship dollars because they simply aren't as marketable as their peers in football and basketball.

In baseball, there are two MVPs every year -- one for the National League and one for the American League. In addition, the sport hands out a Cy Young award to two of its top pitchers each year, a distinction that takes away from the prestige of an MVP title.

"It's a lot harder for baseball players to break through on a national level," Mr. Dorfman said.

Baseball struggles to turn its stars into national brands, in part because the sport has such a regional appeal. Television contracts make it difficult for small-market teams to generate much of a following outside their coverage area.

That means that fans in Seattle or Miami are not as interested in Mr. McCutchen as they are in fellow Pittsburgh athletes Troy Polamalu of the Steelers or Sidney Crosby of the Penguins -- both of whom have national appeal and national endorsement deals.

"I think he is rooted in regional opportunity, and he is only able to rise above that with personality and charisma and performance that grabs the nation's attention," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon's Lundquist College of Business. "It's not impossible, we just don't see many of those kinds of players come through in baseball."

The sport has some marketable young faces, such as Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels and Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg of the Washington Nationals. Mr. Harper and Mr. Strasburg were both top overall draft picks and had a lot of media interest before playing their first major league games. Mr. Trout made his major league debut at age 19 and was immediately one of the best players in the game.

An MVP for Mr. McCutchen could elevate him into that category.

"It helps move you up the ladder in a very crowded field, fighting for not a lot of endorsement money," Mr. Dorfman said.

John Fuller, founder of Full Athlete Marketing in New York City, believes his client is already there. Since he began representing Mr. McCutchen in spring 2012, Mr. Fuller said requests for time and endorsements have exploded for the 27-year-old Pirates star.

He currently has sponsorship deals with Nike and T-Mobile and was featured on a video game cover for "MLB The Show" this year. Earlier this week, he and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz were named executive producers of an MTV show that focuses on baseball and pop culture. The show will debut on MTV2, MTV's sister network, this spring.

Mr. Fuller expects those opportunities to continue, especially if things go Mr. McCutchen's way tonight.

"It definitely makes him more marketable," Mr. Fuller said. "It's a launching pad into superstar status as an athlete, in any league, to be an MVP."

That would add to the value of Mr. McCutchen's autographs and memorabilia.

The ballplayer himself may put a few restrictions on how fast and far his exposure grows. Mr. McCutchen has been wary of becoming overextended and has turned down appearances and sponsorship opportunities that compromise his training and in-season routine.

"The one thing about Andrew vs. a lot of players, Andrew has never been a guy that wants to do a lot of appearances," Mr. Fuller said. "He doesn't want to be bogged down with a lot of commitments to sponsors."

Even if he is amenable to doing deals, he's unlikely, at least anytime soon, to be offered national TV spots selling soft drinks or fast food.

"It might get him a few regional deals next season," Mr. Swangard said, "but it won't turn him into a Madison Avenue darling."

Michael Sanserino:, 412-263-1969 or on Twitter @msanserino.

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