PHILADELPHIA — There are no baseball players with $80 million shoe contracts, and to Major League Baseball officials, that’s a big problem.
With the number of black American baseball players on the decline, baseball officials know they must find a way to make the sport’s top athletes more visible in commercials and other media.
Some players, like Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, have managed to cash in on their on-field success with big endorsements, but the majority of other top black stars have been slow to benefit.
“Have I been able to cash in on a thing? N and O,” said Jimmy Rollins, the All-Star shortstop of the Philadelphia Phillies. “It’s up to the big companies — they’re the ones that make the decisions. I don’t personally get frustrated, but there are certain players that companies can and should be [marketing] that they avoid.”
Clearly, Madison Avenue has no trouble working with black players from the NBA. Former Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan still is one of the most marketable athletes in the world. Other players, including LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers, hold multimillion-dollar contracts with a variety of companies.
The big question baseball officials are weighing is how directly involved the league should be in promoting individual players.
“The NBA gets much too much credit for marketing their players. They don’t market their players; the shoe companies do,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, baseball’s executive vice president for business operations. “The shoe companies made a realization when they were dealing with [Jordan] that they weren’t just marketing to the basketball player but to a wide audience. Because when schools started allowing kids to wear sneakers to school, then guys like me and you who couldn’t play like Mike could look like Mike.”
Baseball’s problem, of course, is that it’s hard to market a baseball cleat the same way as a basketball shoe.
“The shoe kind of separates the NBA from other sports,” said Scott Sanford, senior talent director with Davie-Brown Talent, a Dallas-based firm that matches celebrities with advertisers. “What they can provide is an officially approved item that everyday people might use. The cleat has a limited use.”
Although some sporting-goods companies are happy to outfit many top baseball players, few players are part of companies’ national advertising campaigns.
“I’m Nike from head to toe, so that part’s taken care of,” Rollins said. “But I haven’t done any Nike commercials. Nike would rather spend their money on basketball.”
Baseball players, in general, are not rated as highly as other athletes in terms of marketability. The Davie-Brown Index, which gives scores to celebrities based on their attractiveness to advertisers, generally gives the highest scores to basketball players such as Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
The top-rated celebrities in the Davie-Brown Index receive scores of more than 80 on a 100-point scale. Jeter, the highest-rated active baseball player, has a score of 57.7. Alex Rodriguez, the game’s highest-paid player and Jeter’s teammate, scores a 45.9. O’Neal, by comparison, scored an 81.4.
“It’s just not that great a time to do your own marketing in baseball right now,” said Mr. Sanford, who blamed the recent controversy over steroid use in the game. “I think it’s just a tough time. Baseball’s struggling.”
Ryan Howard, the Phillies’ first baseman and last year’s National League Most Valuable Player, said he does not sense the league does anything special to promote black players.
“Most guys are doing their own stuff,” he said. “Most guys are taking it upon themselves to get out there.”
Rollins agreed: “We just have to sit back and play the sport and try to find different ways to reach black players in the neighborhood and the community. But looking for baseball to help — I don’t really think that’s the answer.”
Dave Buck, the Phillies’ senior vice president for marketing, advertising and sales, said the team has received no directive from the league to do more with Rollins and Howard.
“We don’t do anything extra because they’re African-American,” Mr. Buck said. “They’re great baseball players. No one has to show us there’s wisdom in promoting these guys.”