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Wall St. and Business Wednesdays: The Bonds Market Is A Bear by Chris Haft


Entering this season with 703 home runs, Barry Bonds should soon pass Babe Ruth, whose 714 rank second on the career list, and pursue Hank Aaron's record of 755. Whether Bonds ascends to the throne of the endorsement world is another matter entirely.

Image is everything, and Bonds' image has taken a beating throughout the Balco investigation. Particularly damaging was the grand-jury testimony -- leaked to the public Dec. 2 -- in which Bonds said he used, unwittingly, the two designer steroids at the heart of the scandal.

"I think he's a big question mark right now," said Brandon Steiner, CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing in New York. "People don't know what to do to respond -- and when they don't know, usually they do nothing until things are real clear."

MasterCard, one of Major League Baseball's top sponsors, was approached by baseball officials late last year with the idea of using Bonds to promote the 2005 season. But prospects evaporated as the Balco controversy escalated. "We didn't express interest in participating. That's pretty much where it stands right now," MasterCard spokesman Chris Monteiro said.

By at least one other measure, Bonds' marketability has fallen short of what would be expected from a man on the verge of making big history. Sales of his No. 25 jersey over the past two years are barely 25,000, according to SportsScanINFO, a firm that records sales from retailers nationwide.

"That puts him nowhere" on a list of sales rankings, said Neil Schwartz, SportsScanINFO's director of marketing and business development.

Bonds broke from the MLB Players Association's group licensing agreement after the 2003 season to negotiate his own deals. Jeff Bernstein, Bonds' marketing agent, declined an interview request but furnished a list of more than 20 companies that are official licensees of Killer Bee Inc., which handles the seven-time MVP's marketing deals. Many Bonds-related products can be found on his official Web site, BarryBonds.com, where transactions would escape SportsScanINFO's sales tracker.

NBA megastar Michael Jordan was another prominent athlete to split from his union to make his own deals. But the difference in marketability between Jordan and Bonds is astronomical. Even in retirement, Jordan makes about $24 million a year just from Nike; Bonds, on the other hand, totals about $4 million a year in endorsements, according to Sports Illustrated.

Of Bonds, Nova Lanktree, executive vice president of player marketing with Chicago-based player agency CSMG, said, "It was an incongruity how little marketing he got. He could have been one of those who had the whole marketplace by the butt because he has it all: He's handsome, intelligent and a magnificent baseball player."

"Where's the gap? The gap is attitude," said Steiner, whose company has negotiated exclusive autograph deals with Mark McGwire, Derek Jeter and Aaron. "The opportunity is there if you have the right outlook."

Bonds' low profile in the national marketplace is hardly news, since his surly, solitary reputation has grown with his status as the game's premier performer.

Still, the Bonds market isn't dormant. Among five "ballpark experiences" the Giants recently auctioned to benefit tsunami relief, the highest bid ($30,200) went to a pregame meeting with Bonds.

At The Fan Club in San Jose, Calif., where sports apparel and merchandise are sold, store manager Craig Uyeda said the demand for Bonds-related goods is "like people needing water."

"His is still by far the most popular autograph going these days," Uyeda added. "If there's any backlash on Balco, I don't see what it is. There's no lag in sales of Barry Bonds memorabilia or items."

Giants executive vice president and chief operating officer Larry Baer said consumers continue to seek Bonds merchandise "well above any other player or group of players" at the team's dugout stores.

Bonds' image has not affected the Giants off the field, in Baer's view.

"We're not seeing any drop-off in sponsors at all," he said. "We're reaching new levels with major sponsors, like Bank of America."

A week after Bonds' grand-jury testimony became public, hundreds of fans paid $7,500 each to spend a few minutes with him and New York Yankees star Alex Rodriguez at an event in New York. Each patron received items signed by Rodriguez and Bonds, who also appeared together at an autograph session later in the weekend.

Scot Monette, who promoted the event as president of A-Rod Authenticated, gushed about Bonds' interaction with fans.

"Barry was amazing," Monette said. "He opened up, he told personal stories, he was an A-plus-plus. He came off as well-spoken, sensitive, articulate, caring.

"The Barry Bonds that I met for that weekend, if that's the way he would act consistently, could have anything in this world."

Lanktree, who has worked with such figures as Jordan, John McEnroe, Johnny Bench and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar while working with national advertisers for more than 20 years, cautioned against making too much of that event. She said the people who paid handsomely for a few minutes of Bonds' time did it "because of baseball, not because of how fast you can move a product."

Steiner agreed.

"When you get a chance to meet him one-on-one, that's one thing," he said. "Using him to endorse a product to enhance the image of one's company is another."

This article was published by The San Jose Mercury News on February 1st 2005.


Chris Haft

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

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