Los Angeles is in the midst of full-on Puig-mania.
When Yaisel Puig joined the L.A. Dodgers about two months ago, the team was stuck in last place. Now, they’re in first and the 22-year-old Cuban outfielder is one of baseball’s hottest players. Puig is trying to capitalize on his rapid rise, but that may prove more difficult than he thinks.
When the Dodgers signed Puig to a $42 million contract last year without ever seeing him play in a game there was a strong consensus among baseball executives and writers: The Dodgers had wildly overpaid.
Puig’s first month with the Dodgers proved the doubters wrong: He batted .436 in June, better than any other player in the Major League Baseball.
Thanks largely to Puig, Dodger tickets are a hot commodity for the first time in years. TV ratings for games are the highest in four years. Viewership is up 6 percent since mid-June.
Despite only playing a fraction of the season, Puig’s jersey is the 10th highest selling in Major League Baseball.
“Everything gravitates towards him,” says Alex Radetsky, president and founder of Radegen Sports Management, who recently signed a deal to represent Puig off the field. “He¹s outgoing. He’s extremely likable, a good looking kid with a million dollar smile.” It will be Radetsky’s job to turn that million-dollar smile into multimillion-dollar endorsements.
“I wasn’t aware of any competition, but I’m sure he was in the picture just like others,” says Radetsky.
Radetsky said he met Puig through a mutal acquaintance, which he won’t name. The New York-based agent also represents David Ortiz and Jose Bautista.
Puig has one year left on a Nike deal, but other than that, he has a clean slate.
“If we didn’t say we wanted to strike right now while the iron was hot, that would be misleading,” says Radetsky. “You want to make sure he doesn’t miss out on opportunities.”
But companies looking to sign Puig might not be in such a hurry.
“If I was a brand looking at him, I’d probably wait,” says Bill Glenn, senior vice president of The Marketing Arm.
Companies face a dilemma though: If they wait and Puig continues to shine, his price could go up.
The overall performance of the Dodgers is also important, says Marc Ippolito, president of Burns Entertainment, which helps match brands with celebrities. Companies want baseball stars to still be on TV in October.
“It’s better when they’re still on the national stage, so that when more of the public is watching the playoffs and the World Series, you have someone up there who has their story told over and over again,” says Ippolito.
Much of Puig’s story remains a mystery. He rarely grants interviews, and when he does, they’re in Spanish. Some of Puig’s rookie sheen seems to be wearing off, with pictures of him at the Playboy mansion and segments on TMZ about his clubbing in Hollywood.
Even with the tabloid headlines, longtime talent agent Marc Perman says the Dodgers are wise to limit Puig’s interviews.
“He just needs to play ball,” says Perman. “At this early point, he should let his game speak for itself. There’s plenty of time to do the media stuff later.”
Perman calls Puig’s marketing prospects “enormous,” if he continues to play well. He advises Puig to seek out national endorsement deals to distinguish himself from lesser players who do local advertising.
But he says there’s a common misconception that athletes have a plethora of options to choose from. In reality, the choices are more limited.
That’s because advertisers go after athletes to fit a specific campaign, not the other way around.
“You don’t necessarily have 20 companies calling you,” says Perman. “It isn’t such a sellers market that you’re turning down all these deals. The really good deals are far and few between, so when you have a good one you make the most of it.”
The amount teams pay athletes continues to skyrocket, thanks to the infusion of cable TV money. But Perman says most athletes are making considerably less off the field because companies now spread their ad budgets out across many different mediums.
That’s bad news for Puig.
“He’s not going to be playing in the same size sandbox that players did in the 90’s, which is probably the peak of this whole business,” says Perman.
Perman says the Hispanic market, despite its rapid growth, still isn’t big enough to make a major impact on Puig’s deals. And there’s some evidence his heritage could actually hurt him with marketers.
ESPN recently commissioned a study looking at the top 125 richest athletes. It found being Hispanic reduces earnings by an average of 42 percent.
“It was really interesting and a bit surprising to us,” says Jeff Phillips, a principal at the Parthenon Group consulting firm, who conducted the study.