BASEBALL'S GRIFFEY, THOMAS CONNECT WITH NIKE, REEBOK

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Baseball phenoms Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas are on deck to become the sport's most valuable marketing stars, but a looming players strike could wash out their record-breaking seasons.

Both wunderkinder will take the field for the American League July 12 in Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, but Mr. Griffey-a Nike endorser-and Mr. Thomas-signed to Reebok International-will go toe to toe next spring in the marketing arena.

Mr. Griffey of the Seattle Mariners is on pace to smack a record 67 home runs this season, while the Chicago White Sox's Mr. Thomas, just two homers off his rival's pace, is leading the league in several other categories.

"Both guys are young, talented and likable, and will do well, though a strike could slow them down," said David Burns, president of Burns Sports Celebrity Service, Chicago. "But what could hurt them more is that they're baseball players. The phones aren't ringing for baseball players because the sport isn't what it used to be. The endorsement dollars are going to basketball players."

Next spring's aggressive Nike/Griffey and Reebok/Thomas marketing campaigns could raise the image of MLB and its players. In the meantime, both Nike and Reebok recently inked sponsorship and media deals with MLB's TV and marketing arm, the Baseball Network; the deals take effect with NBC's All-Star Game telecast. Nike will break a new spot with Mr. Griffey for its Air Max Squared line, while Reebok will run three spots, including one showcasing Mr. Thomas.

Next year, Reebok will introduce a new line of baseball and softball shoes and merchandise called The Big Hurt-Mr. Thomas' nickname. The shoes will be black and sport a Big Hurt logo. The Pre-Season cross-training shoe currently endorsed by Mr. Thomas will be redesigned to look like the baseball line and will also carry the Big Hurt tag. National print and TV advertising from Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, is scheduled to break in March.

Nike is planning to counter with Mr. Griffey in an extensive ad campaign from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore. The spots will tout a revamped baseball line and companion cross-training shoe and creatively will have a spring training theme.

Mr. Thomas has yet to build an endorsement portfolio outside Reebok, but Mr. Griffey has done national TV spots this year for Nintendo of America and Upper Deck Co, and has been an endorser for Kellogg Co.

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