Long before race car drivers were thanking sponsors in victory lane, baseball's original ironman, Lou Gehrig, was busy plugging one of his endorsements. In April 1935, with his consecutive games played streak nearly 10 years old, Lou Gehrig told magazine readers how to be successful. Gehrig made it known that for any boy or girl, or mom or dad for that matter, a big bowl full of Wheaties every morning was a good way to start the day out right.
Gehrig might have been the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box (he did so three times between 1934 and 1936), but the man who surpassed Gehrig's consecutive game streak of 2,130 games, Cal Ripken himself a Wheaties box alum is among the sports industry's most credible spokesman today.
In 2001, Ripken's final season, he earned about $6 million from endorsements. Ripken's agent noted that as his Hall-of-Fame career with the Baltimore Orioles was coming to an end, he had received more than 250 proposals from companies that wanted to associate with him, leading him to believe in Ripken's long-range marketability.
He has attained this lofty position thanks to his savvy decision making and stellar presentation, perhaps best summed up by the perspective of many sports fans. These fans think that although many Americans pay to see flashy guys living the rock 'n' roll and millionaire lifestyle, just as many revere blue-collar types with whom they can more readily identify. It is these fans that watched Ripken out there every night giving everything he had without being an overpaid prima donna. They viewed him as a guy who did everything he could to let the fans know that he appreciated the fact that they paid his salary. It was for those reasons that scores of sports fans look forward to telling their grandchildren about Cal Ripken, Jr. and hoping that they emulate him.
Ripken's consistency on the field has been matched by his consistency away from it. Generally believed to have character beyond reproach, Ripken has emerged over the last decade as the consummate athlete dad and credible pitchman.
Part of the reason for this is that his product choices have been predictable, delivering an unparalleled level of believability.
He also overdelivers in the area of relevance. Ripken constantly forges a connection between himself and the products he endorses. This connection spills over to audiences that respect his work ethic and embrace his aura as a parent. The type of products he endorses reinforce this favorable positioning.
To risk-averse corporate America, a guy like Ripken appears right out of central casting: a great athlete that possesses class, dignity, and a commitment to work and family.
He has pitched everything Ward Cleaver would pitch: McDonald's, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Century 21, Chevrolet, and of course, milk. Ripken has even included his family in the message. In Coke's "Life Tastes Good" campaign, Ripken is seen walking off the diamond arm-in-arm with his daughter. Very Norman Rockwellian.
His agents coordinated the marketing of the Cal Bar, a Ripken candy bar sold as a fund-raising vehicle for schools and Little Leagues throughout Maryland, which generated more than $500,000.
Thanks in part to his great brand, the new minor league team that he purchased, the single-A Aberdeen Ironbirds of the short-season New York Penn League, was almost completely sold out prior to the opening of the 2002 season.
Because Ripken recognized early in his career that building and maintaining a great personal brand would enable him to succeed both on and off the field, he served as a great ambassador for the sport of baseball, particularly to those kids shagging fly balls on fields he helped finance.
Ripken's "show up everyday" mentality and work ethic spoke directly to the value he placed on commitment to his team. His entire career was predicated on the fact that there are no easy solutions no shortcuts to success or self-esteem. Even though his productivity waned toward the end of his career (his batting average only surpassed .300 during one of his final 10 seasons), his daily presence inspired all those that worked around him. Corporate America, understanding this, tabbed him the Iron Man of Relevance.
Because many small companies have their own "personalities" and are readily known throughout the community, they must retain athletes that actually have a believable connection to the company. For businesses that seek to be respected corporate citizens within their communities, sending the right (i.e., relevant) executive to give that Rotary or Kiwanis Club speech is just as critical.