Steal bases, snag sponsors?August 24, 2012: 11:45 AM ET
Billy Hamilton just broke the minor league record for stolen bases in one season. But still, it's the minor leagues. What kind of endorsement potential does he have?
By Daniel Roberts, reporter
FORTUNE -- For many sports fans, the last time they cared about a minor league baseball player was when Michael Jordan played for the Birmingham Barons in 1994. In the following years, other phenoms have been hyped before they hit the Bigs -- Bryce Harper is one such example from 2009. But for the most part, American sports fans don't watch minor league baseball, don't care, and can't name a current player. Billy Hamilton, shortstop for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, may change that.
On Tuesday night, Hamilton broke the all-time record for stolen bases in one season, surely catching the attention, at the very least, of brands that advertise in the sporting world. And his season isn't even over yet; the Wahoos play through September 3. Baseball fans are hearing about Hamilton, and so are the people who seek out endorsement prospects.
Hamilton broke the record of Vince Coleman -- that speedster went on to play for the St. Louis Cardinals -- who stole 145 bases in a single season back in 1983. To break Coleman's record, Hamilton stole his 144th, 145th and 146th bases all in the first three innings of the same game. It's difficult not to put major expectations on him -- Bleacher Report prophesies Hamilton will be the "most dynamic MLB base-stealer since Rickey Henderson" -- even if Hamilton is far from baseball's most promising hitting prospect. Rickey Henderson holds the equivalent MLB record with 130 stolen bases in a season. Granted, it's far more difficult to sneak by pitchers in the Majors, but in the past 10 years, the player with the most stolen bases each season had totals that ranged merely from 39 to 78. Compare those totals to Hamilton's 146, and it's easy to get excited.
So one wonders: when something like this happens -- a young talent grabs headlines and hype before he's even worn an MLB jersey -- just how closely are marketers taking note? What are the chances someone will offer Hamilton a deal right now, or, if not now, what kind of offers can he expect once he dons a Cincinnati Reds cap? (The Reds drafted him in the second round of the 2009 amateur draft; he has since played for the Dayton Dragons, Bakersfield Blaze, and Wahoos, all Reds-affiliated squads.)
Bob Dorfman, sports endorsement expert over at Baker Street Advertising, posits that Hamilton could very well become a marketing machine, but as long as he's still in the minors, he can mostly expect offers from small businesses, such as "local Florida auto-dealers selling fast cars." The minor leagues simply aren't important enough to fans, and thus marketers, on a national scale. When a minor league prospect does get deals, it's usually for equipment or trading cards.
As it turns out, Hamilton agreed this year to baseball card deals with Topps and Upper Deck, and he has an informal product deal with Skullcandy headphones. He has also been contacted recently by a slew of local businesses to do promotional deals and possibly TV commercials. This is according to a professional source close to Hamilton that did not wish to be named. (Fortune had a phone interview scheduled with Hamilton for late Thursday night, but the player canceled.) Even more surprising, and information that seems to have stayed under the radar thus far: Hamilton does have an active endorsement deal with Under Armour, as well as with Louisville Slugger. Under Armour confirms that Hamilton is on its athlete roster; he signed a multi-year contract with the scrappy Baltimore brand just this year.
Dorfman says when Hamilton is called up he can expect even more widespread interest: "It's that moment when a hot prospect like Bryce Harper or Mike Trout [who currently leads the MLB with 39 steals this season and graces this week's cover of our sister publication Sports Illustrated] joins an MLB club that really gets everyone's juices flowing," he says. "Certainly big companies will keep a close watch on Hamilton… they'll be the first to take advantage, followed closely by any marketer of a product built for speed."
There is a chance that one strong suit on the field isn't enough to guarantee you'll see Hamilton on your television screen. And even though brands as big as Under Armour and others are taking note of him, Dorfman jokes, "They're probably checking out 12-year-olds in the Little League World Series right now."
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After the Wahoos' 6-0 thrashing of the Montgomery Biscuits last night, interest in Hamilton and, by extension, the AA Southern League, remains high in the press and in water cooler chat. But it's an anomaly that won't last long if the Reds call him up.
At the moment, the Reds are first in their NL Central division. They have to call Hamilton up before September if they want him eligible for postseason play, and there's a good chance it'll happen. And even if the team only does it so that it can use him as a pinch runner here and there, he'd certainly be of some help in the hunt for the Reds' October.