Holy Cow, Was That A $25 Million Homer?

The home-run race could be a bonanza for McGwire. It already is for baseball

The guy with the awe-inspiring home-run swing and the league-leading biceps soon may be setting the pace in another category: endorsement dollars. Mark McGwire, the new emperor of long ball, is a cinch to become the highest-paid corporate spokesman in baseball history should he decide to cash in on even a fraction of the opportunities that beckon.

Thanks to his record-breaking 62nd home run on Sept. 8, McGwire could reap $25 million in single-season endorsements next year, predicts Rick Burton, director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. That would catapult the St. Louis Cardinals slugger past baseball's reigning corporate pitchman, Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr. ($6.5 million), and into the company of such Madison Avenue heavyweights as Tiger Woods ($24 million) and Michael Jordan ($47 million). Chicago Cub power man Sammy Sosa, who's on pace to also pass Roger Maris' 37-year-old record of 61 homers in a season, figures to play well with advertisers, too.

ONE SNUB. "McGwire has dominated the front-page news for the past two months," says Burton. "You don't have to explain him in your advertising. Not his sport. Not what he did. Just show him." McGwire's raw power on the field, combined with a reputation as a concerned citizen and a divorced but devoted father off it, are a potent combination. And fans have shrugged off his one controversy--the revelation that he uses a muscle-building supplement banned by the Olympics and by the NFL.

So McGwire is likely to be courted by major corporations in such categories as cars, soft drinks, fast food, and footwear, say the experts. Bill Mullon, president of ProSports Marketing Inc. in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., calls McGwire the perfect pitchman for everything from credit cards to sport-utes. "He's Middle America," says Mullon. Not that the red-bearded wonder will say yes to all. Already, he seems to have squelched what may have been the most lucrative of all deals, a hookup with McDonald's Corp. ("Did somebody say McGwire?"). He told Sports Illustrated recently he had no interest in shilling for the chain, since "I don't eat Big Macs."

But Sosa isn't snubbing McDonald's, having traded on his cross-cultural appeal in a recent ad for the rollout of Spicy Mighty Wings. And there's more where that deal came from. Says his agent, Adam Katz: "I've been representing athletes for 14 years and have never seen anything remotely close to this. The interest is enormous."

However, Sosa is a lesser known quantity than McGwire, who has already proven to advertisers that he can influence customer spending. Since mid-July, turnstiles have spun wherever he plays. Attendance at Busch Stadium in St. Louis this season is on track to top 3.1 million, even though the Cards have been out of their division race for months. For their visit to Milwaukee on Sept. 18-20, Brewers' ticket sales are likely to top 150,000, breaking a 20-year-old record for a three-game series.

Baseball equipment makers also have been busy. St. Louis-based Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. has rolled out two limited-edition McGwire bats this year, including 1,998 souvenirs commemorating Big Mac's 400th career home run that sold out in a week, at $129.95 a pop.

Demand for McGwire T-shirts and trinkets also has been brisk, and not only in St. Louis. At Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium last month, concessionaire Aramark Corp. sold out of McGwire items--840 baseballs, 1,400 pennants, and 432 T-shirts--two games into a three-game series with the Cards.

Rivals are determined not to be caught short. Sportservice, which supplies ballparks in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati, has loaded up a tractor trailer with souvenirs for stops along the McGwire trail. Running low on McGwire merchandise, says Tom Olsen, Sportservice general manager at County Stadium in Milwaukee, "would be like running out of beer."