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Can the Tampa Bay Rays' Super Sam Fuld become a marketing machine?

See "Super" Sam Fuld making another diving catch custom-made for the ESPN Top 10 highlights. See Sam going four for four at the plate, leading the American League (at least briefly) with a .396 batting average. See Sam's agent, Jim Munsey, seize the moment. "Tampa Bay may not be the strongest for marketing as compared to a Chicago or Boston. Having said that, I'm receiving quite a few calls now," Munsey said. Card show signings. Photo ops. Representing the Tampa Bay chapter of the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. Even "some nibbles" in local merchandise promotions. Fuld, in fewer than 20 games as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays, has already become a crowd favorite and trending Twitter topic (see: #LegendofSamFuld). But can he transform that into sports marketing gold?

Munsey, whose son played with Fuld in high school in Durham, N.H., thinks he has a shot. "He's hard not to like … from the way he plays the game to his personality to overcoming what he has with diabetes to how good he is with the kids," he said. "He's the whole package."

Taking a gamble on an athlete early in his rise could have a long-term payoff.

Veteran Tampa advertising exec Ben Lee recalled in the 1990s, for instance, when his agency helped arrange for a young Buccaneer running back in his rookie season do a promotion for a car dealer. The dealership: Jerry Ulm Dodge. The running back: Mike Alstott. The subsequent relationship lasted some 15 years.

Here Fuld is in his first season as a Ray, and he's already nearly a household name in the bay area. "Even my 11-year-old knows who he is," Lee said.

Fuld, however, will need to show some staying power to cash in on his instant fame. Baseball is a notoriously streaky sport, and Super Sam was held hitless for two games in a row last week after rising to the top of the AL batting race. A math whiz as a youngster, Fuld knows that he has been playing above his historical averages and that the limelight can be fleeting.

Bill Webster, vice president of brand management for Sun Life Financial, has long been involved in scouting pro athletes for marketing potential. Fuld's personality has some promise. But the Tampa Bay market is too small and Fuld is too early into a breakout season to be viewed as anything more than a regional opportunity, he said. It's too early for Fuld, who makes $418,300 a year, to jump into the range of athletes who can make six figures from promotions alone.

Plus, with so many teams and so many games over the season, baseball lends itself more to regional marketing than to national. "Baseball fans tend to know players in their town," Webster noted.

Enter the Tampa Bay Rays, who were quick to tap into Fuldmania. The team is issuing Super Sam capes at its May 29 game against the Cleveland Indians — a quickie replacement for the previously planned Manny Ramirez bobbleheads, a promotional idea that went out the door as quickly as Ramirez himself.

With Ramirez retired and all-star Evan Longoria sidelined by injury, Fuld helps fill a void in more ways than one.

Tom Hoof, vice president of marketing/community relations for the Rays, said Fuld will be featured in a TV commercial promoting the cape giveaway but not in the broader TV campaign highlighting some core Rays teammates like Longoria, B.J. Upton and James Shields. "What we like to do is feature a lot of our players," Hoof said. "What's on the front of the uniform is more important than what's on the back."

Meanwhile, Chuck Norris-like jokes about Sam Fuld's superpowers have spread in cyberspace and in the clubhouse. Rays ace pitcher David Price said earlier this week about Fuld's fielding prowess: "I heard that the world is covered by 75 percent water and the other 25 percent is covered by Sam Fuld."

Fuld this month has played all three outfield positions (though, contrary to popular myth, apparently not at the same time).

Being a great athlete alone, however, isn't enough to make it as a product pitchman. You need someone who connects with fans/consumers.

"The combination of on-the-field success and off-the-field charisma is the formula most brands are looking for," said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. "You can be the best person in the game, but if your charisma is like a palm tree, it's just not going to work."

In that context, it helps Fuld's marketing potential that he's known to flash a sense of humor about the hype surrounding him. When reporters ribbed him about not using his superpowers to prevent a rainout earlier this month, Fuld responded, "This is me, washing my planet."

Back in the mortal realm, Fuld has a story line that builds on his appeal to the masses.

He's managed Type 1 diabetes while a relative unknown in the minors. With fewer than 100 games in the majors with the Chicago Cubs before arriving in Tampa Bay, he has the fresh appeal of a rookie. Yet, at age 29, he handles interviews like a veteran.

His age and maturity "may be a secret ingredient" to Fuld's promotional prospects, Swangard said.

"He's somebody who is reasonably wiser than the kid that surged through the minor leagues to stardom. … Usually, when you're the hottest thing, you're young and inexperienced. … A lot of brands have been burned by that."

At 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, Fuld also appeals to fans who appreciate the small, hard-working players of the world. Think of him like the Tampa Bay Lightning's Martin St. Louis, but with a full set of teeth.

His reputation for diving and crashing in the field came early. While in the minors with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs, Fuld was alternately called "a crash test dummy with a death wish," and a "manager's dream and a trainer's worst nightmare." (Note: marketing opportunity as the guy who plays "Mayhem" getting thrown at cars in the Allstate commercials.)

St. Petersburg writer Scott Barancik, who, as editor of a Web site called Jewish Baseball News, has doggedly chronicled Fuld's exploits as one of just nine Jewish baseball players in the majors.

Barancik wonders if Fuld connects enough with devout Jews because as a professional ballplayer he "works" Friday nights and Saturdays. His father is Jewish, his mother is Catholic and growing up his family celebrated Christmas and Hanukkah.

"All this is to say for some Jewish people, a guy like Fuld is not Jewish enough," said Barancik, who is also a former St. Petersburg Times staff writer. "He'd be a great spokesman for Jewish causes, (but) I think his marketing opportunities are probably less on the Jewish side of things."

Instead, Barancik offered, Fuld could pitch a laundry detergent to take out those nasty stains from diving into the dirt.

For now, Super Sam is satisfied setting his marketing sights low.

He'd just like to get a second car for his wife and himself to use in Tampa Bay in exchange for tickets to games or an appearance or two. It's a relatively common arrangement between dealerships and pro athletes.

"From Day One we were trying to get a second car," Fuld said, "but they haven't followed through on that yet.''

Times staff writer Marc Topkin contributed to this report. Jeff Harrington can be reached at (727) 893-8242 or jharrington@sptimes.com.

Can the Tampa Bay Rays' Super Sam Fuld become a marketing machine? 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 11:37am]

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