Sports

Athlete Heat Index: Looking At The Hottest Names In Baseball As The 2021 Season Begins

Welcome back to UPROXX Sports’ Athlete Heat Index, where sports marketing executive and self-described “brand geek” Michael Ehrlich ranks athletes by the strength of their personal brands.

The second installation of the series is inspired by Major League Baseball’s Opening Day and explores the top athlete brands heading into the new season. While declining pre-pandemic attendance and TV ratings, combined with an older fan base, have proved challenging for MLB stars to break through, the league seems to be on the cusp of a transition.

A younger generation of players are challenging the status quo, the “unwritten rules” of baseball, and taking their personal brands into their own hands, all while trying to make baseball fun again. The league even launched a new #MakeItMajor start of season campaign featuring the star players who are pushing the game forward.

Here are a five who have cracked the code and authentically build their unique brands in a game primed for a refresh.

5. Taijuan Walker, New York Mets

Although not the big name Mets offseason acquisition that we’ll discuss later in the ranking, Walker’s recent off-field venture will certainly ensure his personal brand remains in the news for the foreseeable future.

With the launch of his own digital collectible card, Walker became the first active MLB player to enter the NFT space, garnering headlines across the sports, business, and tech industries. Any time you can be the “first” at anything, it’s a huge win for your brand.

Yes, there are major expectations for Walker and the Mets this upcoming season, but prior to his NFT launch, there was minimal conversation about the pitcher’s personal brand. This debut for Walker follows Rob Gronkowski and Patrick Mahomes leading the personal NFT launches in the NFL last month.

A self-described “Crypto-fanatic,” Walker’s NFT sold for the equivalent of $4,275, which will be donated to his team’s Amazin’ Mets Foundation. The sale certainly pales in comparison to Mahomes ($3.7 million) and Gronk ($1.75 million), but from a brand perspective, that doesn’t matter. He gains brand strength by the association with those two All-Pros and Super Bowl champs, and because he was the first MLB player to enter the space, he will be mentioned alongside any and all future players who join the craze. When Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. launches his own NFTs this month, Walker’s name will be featured in coverage of the MVP candidate.

Genius marketing for Walker’s brand — especially because the NFT launch was authentic to his own interests — which did more for his personal narrative than any traditional endorsement deal could. Regardless of how he pitches or how the Mets play this season, his name will be attached to the constant conversation around players launching their own NFTs.

4. Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

A unique physical look while playing in a major media market continues to elevate Turner as one the most interesting personal brands in baseball, especially now as a member of the defending champs.

The Dodgers third baseman’s famous long red hair and beard are slightly trimmed for Opening Day but will no doubt grow to epic lengths yet again in the coming weeks, continuing to differentiate him on-field and across the league. Even the casual fan can recognize Turner from a distance — whether on TV, in a stadium, or across any form of marketing — which is rare for the sport but an easy and effective brand strategy that works across all fields.

Dieting and offseason body transformations doesn’t typically garner much media coverage and fan conversation in baseball — usually reserved for football and basketball — so Turner’s Whole30 diet and svelte new look made waves across the league in Spring Training. Ideally this allows the 36-year-old to extend his career and garner even more recognition for his luscious locks.

Although the oldest personal brand on the Index, Turner’s recent “I’m Busy” challenge (thanks TikTok) connected him a bit more to the younger baseball fan. His commitment to the bit and subsequent reactions from manager Dave Roberts and Cody Bellinger, among other Dodgers, made this video go mainstream. With the eyes of the baseball universe on the defending champs, Turner has the opportunity to expand his narrative outside of just his unique physical differentiator, while setting the stage for his next chapter.

3. Francisco Lindor, New York Mets

The Mets’ gigantic offseason acquisition referred to earlier brought Lindor — one of baseball’s best shortstops — to the top media market in sports. It’s no coincidence that shortly thereafter the new face of the franchise graced the cover of Sports Illustrated’s season preview. The on-field game and ever-changing hair (now dyed Mets blue) of “Mr. Smile” speaks for itself. He was already one of the most unique athlete brands in baseball, but with the move from Cleveland to New York, Lindor’s narrative is now on display to the masses, with an opportunity to grow even more.

Shortly after arriving to his new team, New Balance announced Lindor will have the brand’s first-ever baseball signature shoe and apparel collection. The shortstop is only the third active MLB player with a signature cleat (Mike Trout/Nike, Bryce Harper/Under Armour) so he is in elite athlete brand company.

But what makes this partnership unique is that it tells the story of Lindor — from his childhood in Puerto Rico to his baseball journey to now becoming one of the most fashionable players in the sport — through bright colors and patterns inspired by Puerto Rico’s national flower, the Flor de Maga. This isn’t your typical athlete player collection, as it’s unisex and built with pieces for on and off-field wear, expanding the Lindor brand well outside just the baseball diamond.

Joining a stacked roster of young talent in the largest media market — combined with agreeing to a huge new 10-year, $341 million contract on the eve of Opening Day — means World Series expectations for Lindor and the Mets. Regardless of what happens on the field this season, all eyes will be on Mr. Smile in 2021.

2. Fernando Tatis Jr., San Diego Padres

If any player in the league has taken marketing into his own hands while pushing the game forward, it’s Tatis. At just 22 years old and fresh off signing a 14-year, $340 million contract, the Padres star is poised to be the face of baseball.

Although he plays in a smaller market and in the shadow of the defending champ Dodgers in Southern California, Tatis’ star power has gone mainstream. His unique style of play — his over-the-top bat flips, aggressive base running, and freakish power and athleticism — certainly connects with a younger demographic of baseball fans and brands have taken notice. His highlights trend nightly on social media and his Instagram has NBA player-like reach and engagement all while he consistently challenges the outdated traditions of baseball.

Tatis’ marketing portfolio is quite strong, especially for a MLB player only in his third season in the bigs. Featured in campaigns for adidas, BMW, Gatorade, Hyperice, and Oakley plus gracing the cover of video game MLB The Show 21, it’s hard not to see the MVP candidate’s face on TV, across social media, or in print. What makes his most recent commercial with adidas so impactful though is that it doesn’t push a product, instead authentically speaking to how Tatis is reinvigorating the league, rewriting the rules of baseball and challenging the older generation of fans to think differently about today’s game.

On any given night with a single highlight, even playing in a smaller market, Tatis has the opportunity to push the league into the future and connect with a younger fan. This is his brand superpower. The biggest opportunity for Tatis as he continues to build his brand is to focus on his story, what makes him unique and how he differentiates himself from everyone else in the league, beyond by just his on-field play.

1. Mookie Betts, Los Angeles Dodgers

Coming off a first season in Los Angeles that produced a World Series ring (with a dramatic home run in the clinching game), a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, and a runner-up finish in the NL MVP vote, Betts’ on-field brand has never been stronger. The expectations are even higher this year as LA Times columnist Bill Plaschke predicts the 2021 Dodgers will be the “greatest team in baseball history” with Betts as the face of the star-studded franchise.

However, it’s Betts’ off-field brand that separates himself from the competition. A revealing GQ profile (rare for MLB players to get coverage from top-tier lifestyle media) that highlighted his journey and life outside of baseball combined with a fun billboard stunt next to Fenway Park by Dodgers fan group Pantone 294 continued to elevate Betts’ narrative during Spring Training.

As one of the few Jordan Brand-sponsored MLB athletes, Betts appeared in the company’s recent “Here For A Reason” commercial showcasing the depth and breadth of its roster and how its on-court/on-field excellence is only a part of its impact. The spot features Jordan athletes at the forefront of the social justice movement over the last year, for which Betts led the way for the Dodgers and baseball overall.

Prior to the 2020 season, Betts leveraged his social channels and media availabilities to speak out on racial inequality and challenge the league’s slow response to George Floyd’s death. He continued to set the tone for the season by participating in a #Players4BLM video with other Black MLB stars in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. But this was just the start of Betts’ impact off the field throughout the season. From kneeling on Opening Day to sitting out against the Giants after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin — teammates followed his lead and the league postponed the game — Betts garnered Jackie Robinson comparisons from manager Dave Roberts.

This coincided with the league’s celebration of Jackie Robinson Day where Betts narrated a tribute video reciting famous quotes from Robinson that were as poignant that week as they were when the Hall of Famer said them in the 1940-50’s. Continuing the momentum, Betts and The Players Alliance, made up of more than 100 Black current and former MLB players, donated their salaries that week to support the effort to fight racial inequality.

Betts’ on-field success is undeniable, but his greatest impact is leveraging his star power and the “Dodgers” on his chest to continue Robinson’s legacy as an ambassador for equality and to push for change across baseball and society as a whole.

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