Alex Ovechkin is a hockey megastar but hasn't been huge on Madison Avenue. That could change now that the Capitals left wing has signed with IMG Worldwide, one of the top sports agencies in the world.
Think commercials with Tiger Woods. Or appearances with Peyton Manning. There's good reason to believe he could become the biggest mainstream star the NHL has seen in 20 years.
Ovechkin enjoys the spotlight, but this is not a case of an athlete begging to find the agency that will bring him the most commercial opportunities. IMG wanted him - so much so that managing director David Abrutyn, who doesn't usually have personal clients, will be dealing with him directly.
"We're looking forward to working with him to not only grow his brand but the game of hockey," Abrutyn said.
It will be a tough but achievable task for Abrutyn and IMG as they seek to hoist Ovechkin to commercial success on par with athletes from more widely viewed sports. The NHL can't be like the NBA when it comes to marketing its players. Many top stars are from Russia or Scandinavia, sometimes with shaky English. There are no shoe deals, and players are so wrapped up in padding and helmets that it's not always easy to tell who's who.
The NFL has overcome some of those same problems by amassing huge TV ratings, but the NHL reaches a fraction of that audience. (The ongoing dispute between Versus and DirecTV isn't helping matters.)
"If there's an inhibitor, it's that historically there have only been a few hockey players who have been able to cut through that mainstream marketplace, and I think Alex is poised to do that and follow the footsteps of those before him who have had commercial success," Abrutyn said.
Historically, the District is not a hockey market, and its status as a sports town is still the subject of some criticism. The number of Capitals games on national television, merchandise sales and other indicators suggest that perception is shifting, and Abrutyn said the growth of the Internet has equalized the playing field.
"I think market size has been marginalized by the advent of technology," he said.
So what will Ovechkin's next commercial be? There's a good chance he'll land a beverage deal, ideally with a sports drink but possibly with an energy drink or soda. He'll get some more equipment sponsorships and maybe an apparel deal. (Under Armour, based in Baltimore, would be a nice fit.) He'll partner with companies that are huge in America and Russia.
For an NHL player to break through, he must be transcendently good and charismatic at the same time. Ovechkin has the rare combination of both qualities. And at 24, both his play and his off-ice image still could improve.
"He's four years into speaking the English language and continues to work at that," Abrutyn said. "He understand what needs to be done from an off-ice perspective. He gets all of that, and that's what will make him successful. He knows he has to work at it a little bit, but he's not shy about hard work, and he knows how to have fun with it at the same time. That's usually a pretty good combination."