George Steinbrenner: Marketing Legend and Liability

Late Yankees Owner Remembered as Both Bully and 'Game-Changer' When It Came to Promoting His Brand and His Team

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- George Steinbrenner, the irascible owner of the New York Yankees who died this morning at the age of 80, was a marketing liability to the team early in his 30-plus years of ownership with public tirades, capricious managerial moves and ill-advised activities that twice got him suspended from Major League Baseball.

George Steinbrenner
George Steinbrenner Credit: AP
But as time passed, Mr. Steinbrenner became a marketing asset who not only enhanced the Yankees' brand, but helped rebuild the U.S. Olympic Committee's brand and transformed his own personal image through TV commercials, a hosting gig on "Saturday Night Live" and signing off on the self-deprecating pop-culture portrayal of him on "Seinfeld."

"This is definitely a tale of two George Steinbrenners," said Robert Boland, professor of sports marketing at New York University. "He was a cantankerous bully for his first 17 years of ownership. But the George Steinbrenner who came back on the scene in the 1990s (after a three-year suspension) was a very different owner. This owner really was a game-changer who understood his inherent market advantage and constantly reinvested in his product and pushed the accelerator down to extend the gap between the Yankees and their rivals."

Mr. Steinbrenner, a shipping magnate from Cleveland, bought the Yankees from CBS and William Paley in 1973 for the sum of $8.7 million. (After 11 American League pennants and seven World Series championships, the Yankees are now worth $1.6 billion, according to Forbes magazine.)

Mr. Steinbrenner infamously promised in his introductory press conference in 1973 that he "would not be active in the day-to-day operations of the club at all. I'll stick to building ships." But he quickly did become involved, earning the nickname "The Boss."

In his first 17 seasons as the team owner, the Yankees won four American League pennants and back-to-back world titles in 1977 and '78. Yet he made 17 managerial changes during those 17 years -- including hiring and firing Billy Martin five times -- and the team became known as "The Bronx Zoo."

He was also twice suspended by MLB, first for 15 months for illegal corporate contributions to Richard Nixon's 1972 re-election campaign presidential run, and again for three years in 1990 when it was learned that Mr. Steinbrenner paid $40,000 to a self-described gambler named Howie Spira to dig up dirt on star outfielder Dave Winfield. Mr. Steinbrenner had a very public feud with Mr. Winfield over payments to the player's charitable foundation.

Mr. Steinbrenner also infuriated Yankees fans when he alienated Hall of Fame catcher and Yankees' legend Yogi Berra by firing Mr. Berra as manager just 16 games into the 1985 season. Infuriated and embarrassed, Mr. Berra refused to set foot in Yankee Stadium until Mr. Steinbrenner apologized -- which didn't happen until 1999, when Yankees broadcaster Suzyn Waldman intervened and brought the two men together.

"To be honest, I'm not so sure he wasn't a marketing genius even for what he did during that time that wasn't so good," said Harvey Schiller, who knew and worked with Mr. Steinbrenner for 30 years, first as executive director of the USOC and then as CEO of Yankees/Nets, the entertainment conglomerate put together after Mr. Steinbrenner formed the YES Network regional sports TV station.

"Knowing George, most everything he did that appeared to be emotional was actually planned," Mr. Schiller said. "His contributions to the marketing side of baseball are untold. He once said 'I didn't buy Seattle. I bought New York.' He felt he had a responsibility to the market."

Mr. Steinbrenner slowly began to repair his own image in the 1990s, first by hosting "Saturday Night Live" in 1990, including a hysterical skit in which he played Carl, the owner of Carl's Quick-Stop, who is told by his manager that some of the employees are slacking off and need to be fired.

"Geez, it just seems firing so extreme. How about if we just give him a warning? A warning can be very effective, you know?" Mr. Steinbrenner says, in character. "How do you fire a man? How do you look in his eye and tell him he's no longer needed? Who am I to judge another man?"

But the image repair truly took off with the portrayal of himself on "Seinfeld," after the character George lands a job as the assistant to the traveling secretary for the Yankees. With the exception of one episode in which he played himself, Mr. Steinbrenner was always shot from the back, played by character actor Lee Bear, and voiced by Seinfield series co-creator Larry David.

Mr. Steinbrenner signed off on having his character be part of the show and it became a pop-culture phenomenon, particularly when George was often sent off to fetch "The Boss" a calzone. In a posting on the Baltimore Sun's website, blogger Matt Vensel wrote, "Maybe it's a generational thing, but I'll always think of 'Seinfeld' when I think of Steinbrenner. Somehow, the fake Steinbrenner bossing around George Costanza made the real-life one more endearing to me, even though it was a wild exaggeration (I think) of the man."

"I don't think there's any question that when people first became aware of him, he was this monster," said Jay Lustig, media critic for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. "He was able to use his appearances on shows like 'Saturday Night Live' and 'Seinfield' to soften his image. Even though it wasn't a huge part of his life, he did use the media in a canny way. If you look at the outpouring of positive reflections today, it's almost shocking given the negatives that surrounded him early (in his ownership)."

Mr. Steinbrenner, who appeared in a 1978 Miller Lite TV ad sparring with Mr. Martin over "tastes great, less filling" -- and ultimately firing Mr. Martin at the end of the commercial -- also made two humorous spots in 2003 and 2004 for Visa, produced by BBDO. In one, Mr. Steinbrenner castigates star shortstop Derek Jeter for his heavy nightlife schedule and asks how he's able to do it, and appears chastened when Mr. Jeter pulls out his Visa card. The spot ends with Mr. Steinbrenner out partying with Mr. Jeter and dancing in a conga line.

In the second spot, Mr. Steinbrenner appeared with then-Yankees manager Joe Torre and complains of an injured arm for signing so many checks, until Mr. Torre pulls out the Visa check card.

"He may have been a marketing liability early in his ownership tenure, but the fact that he became a caricature of himself during that period ultimately drove interest in the Yankees," said David Carter, sports-marketing instructor at the University of Southern California and principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. "And it was this interest and fascination in the team that led to its brand building, media reach, and international acclaim which, over time, not only put butts in the seats but lead to incredible success on both the field and the balance sheet."

Mr. Steinbrenner was influential in putting together the YES Network in 2001, which has since become the country's largest regional cable sports network, and for signing a 10-year, $95 million apparel deal with Adidas.

But Mr. Steinbrenner, a fervent patriot -- he was born on July 4 -- was also influential in turning around the U.S. Olympic Committee. "In 1988, following a disastrous (U.S.) performance (at the Winter Games) in Calgary, he helped put together a blueprint for future success that included myriad things, including athlete support from sponsors," Mr. Schiller said. "He was very, very involved."

Said Mr. Boland: "Sports-business experts will study George Steinbrenner for many years to come. He may be the most influential owner all of sports in the era after the advent of free agency."

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