Cabrera wins Triple Crown; now will he win endorsements?

By Bill Shea | Crain's Detroit Business

October 03, 2012

Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera on Wednesday evening became the first player to win baseball's iconic Triple Crown since 1967.

Whether that means his face shows up on cereal boxes and in TV commercials amid a windfall of lucrative endorsement deals remains to be seen.

The Venezuela-born Cabrera, 29, for years has been one of baseball's premier hitters, but that's never translated into mass-market merchandising appeal.

Sports industry marketers theorize that Cabrera's sketchy history of personal behavior in recent years and his limited command of spoken English may have limited his attractiveness to brands – or he just may not have been interested in such deals.

He's expected to earn a tidy sum as the first winner in almost two generations of the Triple Crown – leading the league in batting average (.330), home runs (44) and runs batted in (139).

It's only the 16th time in the history of baseball a player has accomplished the feat.

"From a memorabilia standpoint, he's going to cash in immediately," said Darin David, a senior director in the sports marketing group at The Marketing Arm, a Dallas-based marketing agency. "It remains to be seen on how brands pursue him. He's not one of the more recognizable players in baseball. This will certainly raise him a big level."

There is some evidence Cabrera's stature is growing among fans. His jersey was 19th among the top 20 in sales of Major League Baseball jerseys from Easton, Pa.-based Majestic since the All-Star break — the first time he'd made the list, according to a statement from baseball.

The rankings didn't disclose the number of jerseys sold.

Marketing giants will take a hard look at Cabrera.

"He'll certainly have more offers," David said. "The premier brands with the biggest budgets, like Nike and Pepsi? They may be willing to invest in him and capitalize on it, but it's hard to say at this point."

He estimated that Cabrera, whose salary is $21 million with the Tigers, will earn at least a couple million more from endorsements and deals with autograph and merchandise dealers.

Also hurting Cabrera from potentially earning more is a lack of hype surrounding the Triple Crown, David said.

"It's not getting the media play it probably deserves," he said. "Maybe the Triple Crown is such an achievement that we've not seen in so many years, fans don't have a grasp of it."

While the Spanish-speaking Cabrera can be difficult to understand when speaking English during post-game interviews, there is money to be made in endorsements for products targeting Spanish-language audiences, David said.

"A lot of brands are speaking to the Spanish language market," he said.

Cabrera has an endorsement deal now for Maltin Polar, a nonalcoholic malt beer brewed and sold in his native Venezuela.

Cabrera also has deals to endorse Franklin batting gloves and New Balance baseball cleats, according to ESPN's Darren Rovell.

He also has done advertising for Metro PCS and Venezuela's state-owned Citgo Petroleum Corp. that operates Citgo gas stations in the United States, said Bob Williams, CEO of Evanston, Ill.-based Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing Inc., which represents companies that want to hire athletes to endorse products. In the past, Burns has brokered deals involving Detroit stars such as Barry Sanders, Isiah Thomas and Kirk Gibson.

Forbes.com estimated in June that Cabrera made $150,000 in endorsements last year.

"(Cabrera winning the Triple Crown) will take him up a level with advertisers setting the stage for national endorsement opportunities," Williams said. "The Tigers winning the World Series would help significantly as advertisers love to associate their product or service with winners."

A drag on Cabrera's marketing potential is his personal history – and his demeanor.

"He has to overcome his off-field problems with alcohol and his low key personality. Advertisers look for the charisma that X factor which is hard to describe but you know it when you see it and is present in all top sports endorsers," Williams said.

Cabrera underwent three months of alcohol treatment prior to the 2010 season after an October 2009 incident in which he ended up in police custody after a night of drinking at the Townsend Hotel in Birmingham and an argument with his wife.

In January, he pleaded no contest to a drunken driving charge after a February 2011 arrest in St. Lucie County, Fla.

He's had no subsequent incidents. The Tigers hired a handler to keep him company when away from the field, and when the team earned a playoff berth the past two seasons, players celebrated by spraying non-alcoholic champagne in the locker room out of respect for his treatment.

Cabrera is represented by Northbrook, Ill.-based SFX Baseball Group, also the agents for Cabrera's high-profile teammate, pitcher Justin Verlander, the reigning American League MVP and Cy Young winners.

A message was left for Cesar Sanchez, director of marketing at SFX.

Cabrera arrived in Detroit (along with pitcher Dontrelle Willis) after a December 2007 trade with the Florida Marlins (for whom he'd played since coming up as a rookie in 2003) in exchange for six prospects.

The Tigers gave him an eight-year, $152.3 million contract extension in March 2008, the biggest contract in team history at the time.

His pre-tax $21 million salary this season accounts for nearly 16 percent of Detroit's $134.4 million Opening Day payroll (which includes salaries and signing bonuses, according to tracking done by baseballprospectus.com).

He's eligible to earn bonuses for certain awards: $100,000 for being named most-valuable player of the American League Championship Series, $150,000 for being World Series MVP and $200,000 for being the AL MVP. He would get $100,000 for finishing second in the league MVP vote and $50,000 for finishing in third through fifth place, according to Baseball Prospectus.

Cabrera certainly has performed. He's a seven-time All Star that's led the American League in home runs (2008), RBI (2010) and batting average (2011).

Now, he's the first player since Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski to finish the regular season leading his league in all of those categories in the same season.

Yastrzemski, who turned 28 in August of that year and is now 73, hit .326 with 44 home runs and 121 RBI with the Red Sox and was the MVP in addition to the Triple Crown winner. His home run total was tied with Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins.

Known as Yaz, he was an 18-time All Star during his career with Boston from 1961 to 1983.

Boston edged the Tigers by one game in that 1967 season to win the American League pennant, but lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

Yastrzemski cashed in the following season with a one-year, $100,000 contract. It's unclear what he was paid in 1967, but it's known that it was more than baseball's average salary of $19,000.

He has an official history and memorabilia website at Yaz8.com, which sells autographed merchandise ranging in price from $1,500 to $100. It's run by Baltimore-based Dick Gordon Sports, which is the marketing agent for baseball icons Yastrzemski, Frank Robinson and Earl Weaver.

The page MiguelCabrera.com has a note saying it's under construction.

There have been just 15 seasons in baseball history to produce a Triple Crown winner before now. The only other Detroit Tiger to do it was Ty Cobb in 1909, when he hit .377 with nine home runs and 107 RBI. Detroit lost the World Series to Pittsburgh that year in seven games.

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association were reported by ESPN earlier this week to be in talks to have Triple Crown merchandise produced.

Cabrera's statistics outshine many of Yaz's, who was a career .285 hitter.

In 1,511 games over 10 seasons going into tonight's game, Cabrera is a career .318 hitter with 321 home runs, 386 doubles and 13 triples. He's driven in 1,123 runs, walked 709 times and struck out in 1,106 at-bats.

In terms of slightly more advanced statistics, he's got a .395 on-base percentage, a .561 slugging percentage and .956 OPS (on base plus slugging percentage). For the uninitiated, those are outstanding career numbers.

Interestingly, some of Cabrera's numbers this season were down from 2011, such as his batting average, on-base percentage, a stat called "on-base plus slugging" and his walks.

He's an average fielder, at best, and transitioned this season to third base to make room for fellow slugger Prince Fielder to play at first base. Earlier in his career, he spent time as an outfielder.

It should be noted Cabrera's Triple Crown is for just the American League. San Francisco's Buster Posey led all of baseball with a .337 batting average. The last player to lead both league's in all three categories was the Yankees' Mickey Mantle in 1956 (.353 average, 52 home runs, 130 RBI).

"This is a guy that's been around baseball quite a while now and has been one of the better players," David said. "Why didn't he burst on the scene more previously? Maybe it is some of the things that happened in the past — or not being able to deliver on camera, which is key whether you get large advertising deals or not."