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The Business of Sports

Tebow, Theo, and Buschy

Forgetting for a minute the NBA lockout that drags on, and the blizzard of breast cancer pink on NFL fields, a sports business snapshot of October would burst with three colorful images: the return to prominence of a certain Tim Tebow; the move west of Theo Epstein; and the dramatic World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals. Stealing the hearts and minds of World Series watchers, alongside some guys named Pujols and Napoli, is a squirrel.

Tebow, former Boston Red Sox General Manager and Executive Vice-President Epstein, and Buschy the squirrel have more in common than you might think. All three are charismatic, media savvy, and marketable. All their brands can be found on highly sought-after apparel items—Tebow’s No. 15 jersey has consistently been one of the NFL’s top sellers since he was drafted by the Denver Broncos 18 months ago, the squirrel has scads of merchandise, and Epstein, in the front office, even has an official jersey on sale at for $184.95.

Perhaps more tellingly, all have impressive numbers of Facebook friends, fan groups, and Twitter followers: 327,882 for Tebow and 28,300 for the Rally Squirrel, and lots of folks pretending to be Epstein.

As such, considering the size of their fan bases, they’re all poised for breakout marketing and endorsement deals.

Return of the Squirrel

Last week Howard Smith, MLB’s senior vice-president for licensing, reported to SportsBusiness Journal that Cardinals “Rally Squirrel” gear has been a “shockingly large” component of World Series merchandising transactions thus far, that concessionaires and retailers are having a hard time keeping squirrel-centric items in stock, and that the gear will likely be a key part of the holiday-selling season should the Cardinals prevail in the Series—especially since it’s not MLB-licensed merchandise, allowing more businesses to get on the rally squirrel bandwagon without having to worry about violating trademark agreements.

St. Louis-based Olympic Sporting Goods store owner Greg Domian told USA Today, “I’ve restocked (squirrel T-shirts) probably five times. It’s been very good for business. [Fans] just can’t get enough right now.” Among the most popular items around St. Louis: chocolate squirrels, car decals, a T-shirt depicting the squirrel underneath the Gateway Arch that reads, “I Am Your Arch Enemy,” and Rally Squirrel foam fingers, selling for $14 at Busch Stadium, complete with extended claws.

St. Louis’s Rally Squirrel is far from baseball’s only flash-brand phenomenon. At last year’s World Series, it was the Rangers’ “Claw & Antlers” craze—hand gestures symbolizing power and agility that started with the players and spread to fans—that energized merchandisers.

Workers at the Majestic store at Rangers Ballpark were mobbed when they tried to restock shelves with Claw & Antler T-shirts and hats. Before that, the Los Angeles Angels’ Rally Monkey became a fan darling in the middle of the 2000 season and danced his way to worldwide attention when the Angels advanced to the World Series in 2002. The Angels win in Game 7 that year and return to the post-season in 2009 saw a run on plush monkeys that fans continue to bring to games today; the monkey even got his own ESPN “This is Sports Center” commercial in 2008.

MLB and the Cardinals, whose players have embraced their new unofficial mascot, reportedly sold more than 11,000 units of Rally Squirrel merchandise at Busch Stadium during Game Two of the World Series alone. Given the game’s attendance of 47,288, that means nearly one in four people in the ballpark purchased a piece of the rodent-themed merchandise.

“This is another instance that shows the power of what can happen when the players get involved,” added Smith. “This has become a rallying cry for them, and that in turn has really resonated with fans.”

Second Coming of Tebow

If Tim Tebow leads the Broncos to another improbable victory like he did on Sunday, prepare for a resurrection of national Tebow mania.

The quarterback, best known for his missionary work, commitment to God and community, and pro-life Super Bowl ad, became a superstar during his college career, when he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Florida Gators to the BCS National Championship in 2008. Tebow’s omnipresence, good deeds, and pitbull playing style even spawned a whole new litany of “Tebowisms,” such as:

  • Superman wears Tim Tebow pajamas;
  • When Google can’t find something, it asks Tim Tebow for help;
  • In the beginning there was nothing. Then Tim Tebow stiff-armed that nothing in the head and said “Get a job.” That is the story of the universe;
  • Tim Tebow is the reason Waldo is hiding.

Despite starting just three games for the Broncos last season and looking as if he would never live up to his athletic promise, Tebow remains a fan favorite in stadiums across the U.S. When the Broncos played the Dolphins last weekend at Sun Life Stadium in Miami, Dolphins Chief Executive Mike Dee told sportswriters beforehand that “nearly 20,000 tickets have been sold since Tebow was named the starter eight days ago—10,000 tickets by the team and nearly 10,000 in the secondary market on websites such as StubHub.” As another carrot for fans in Florida, Sunday’s game included a celebration of the 2008 national championship team. As Miami Herald’s Greg Cote reported afterward, “the Dolphins honoring the Gators on Sunday meant half of the crowd was cheering for the opponent’s quarterback.” During the game Tebow “busted off a 21-yard run and a huge cheer arose—as if the game were in Denver, or in Gainesville.”

Currently, Tebow has limited his endorsements to Nike (NKE ), EA Sports (ERTS) and Jockey International, although he claims to have turned down several seven-figure endorsement deals in order to focus on the Broncos. But the heavenly endorsement skies are the limit for Tebow if he continues to win. In a recent Marketing Arm Celebrity DBI test, Tebow ranks above the Cowboys’ Tony Romo and the Patriots’ Tom Brady in the Appeal category and outranks the two active quarterbacks as well as Hall of Famers Dan Marino and Troy Aikman in the Breakthrough, Trendsetter, and Trust categories.

Martin Garafolo, Gameday Merchandising‘s chief operating officer, whose company runs the Broncos’ official team stores, affirmed to the Denver Post: “Tim’s definitely won this town over. His popularity is just unbelievable here.”

The Legend of Theo

For the past eight years, if you envision a singular figure who personifies the Chicago Cubs, you’re probably going to think of the Bartman. That would be hapless fan Steve Bartman, who drew the outrage of Chicagoland (and death threats) when he deflected a potential catch by Cubs outfielder Moises Alou during the eighth inning of Game Six of the 2003 National League Championship Series, in which the Cubs led by three games to two and were up 3-0 in Game Six. Bartman was seemingly the living incarnation of “The Curse” that has plagued the team for 103 years. The next day, the Cubs were eliminated.

Now there’s Theo.

Theo Epstein, the young general manager who led the Bosox to two World Series titles and was introduced as the Cubs’ president of baseball operations on Tuesday, is the team’s “latest answer to their 103-year-old championship drought,” according to the Chicago Tribune. Epstein is also a fan and media phenomenon.

In Tuesday’s press conference, Epstein, who signed a five-year, $18.5 million deal to make all baseball-related decisions in the organization, “talked of the Cubs’ regularly reaching the playoffs and ultimately winning the World Series.” But, he added: “That does not happen overnight, and it certainly does not happen because of any one person.” Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, according to MLB, said “he knew after 10-15 minutes into their first conversation that he had targeted the right person.”

As Epstein jerseys hit the racks of the Cubs merchandise shop, the accolades continued. “Ricketts landed a rock star,” gushed the Chicago Sun-Times’ Joe Cowley. His Chicago Tribune peer Dave van Dyck saw in the new Cubs exec hints of the brand he’s poised to become.

Epstein “proved to be part baseball philosopher, part professional pamphleteer, part professional pitchman,” van Dyck noted. When asked about being sighted at a Starbucks in Chicago, Epstein said, “Actually I’m a little bit more of a Dunkin’ [Donuts] guy, and now that I’ve learned that Dunkin’ supports the Cubs, that’s a good thing.”

And as a 2011 upgrade to Tebowisms, Chicago Sun-Times reporter Joe Cowley on Monday started a ‘#LegendofTheo’ Twitter thread about Epstein. Some highlights:

  • @GambitRF Eric–Had Theo negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, France would’ve thrown in a player-to-be-named-later
  • @JohnJulitz John Julitz–Theo just turned water into Old Style
  • @GambitRF Eric–Theo was in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction
  • @robperry_12 Rob Perry–The most interesting man in the world calls Theo for advice.

Epstein is a little more guarded about his stardom. “I should probably have another press conference right now to resign,” he said on Tuesday. “Because my popularity is definitely going to be at an all-time high right now.”

Rick Horrow is a leading expert in the business of sports. As chief executive officer of Horrow Sports Ventures, he has been the architect of 103 deals worth more than $13 billion in sports and urban infrastructure projects. He is also the sports business analyst for CNN, Fox Sports, and the Fox Business Channel. Karla Swatek is vice-president of Horrow Sports Ventures and co-author of Beyond the Box Score: An Insider's Guide to the $750 Billion Business of Sports (2010). Horrow is also the host of Sportfolio, a new program on Bloomberg TV that airs Wednesday nights at 9 pm ET.

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