Commentary: The Trouble with Barry Bonds

By Mark Hyman

Hardly a day goes by that Barry Bonds isn't the lead sports story on the evening news. But as the San Francisco slugger glides toward baseball's single-season home-run record, the question that remains unanswered is: Can 71 homers buy Barry love?

For any other ballplayer of Bonds's stature, all that media attention would almost guarantee endorsement riches. Chicago Cubs hitter Sammy Sosa lost his famous home-run duel with Mark McGwire in 1998 and still raked in $5 million to $10 million in deals with Pepsi, MasterCard, Fila, and other brands. Yet in the world of corporate pitchmen, Bonds so far gets treated more like a pesky singles hitter than one of the top six home-run sluggers of all-time.

DINNER FOR ONE. "A lot of it has to do with Barry. For most of his career, he has been seen as truculent and standoffish, even with teammates," says Mark Leonard, president of Integrated Marketing Solutions in Chicago and the marketing agent for Sosa. Bonds has been a no-show for the Giants team photo for the past two years and often skips other team activities. He has a flex coach who leads him through pre-game stretching--alone. And after games, while other players swarm over the dinner buffet, his personal nutritionist whips up a meal for one.

"Why would a company align itself with a person who's not likable?" asks image consultant Kathleen Hessert, president of Sports Media Challenge. "Barry Bonds hasn't made himself likable yet."

It isn't as if Bonds, 37, does no endorsements. Armour is paying him about $200,000 over two years to appear on hot dog packages, and he's been a reliable performer for the wiener company. "I questioned his commitment to do this kind of thing," says Steven Silk, president of the ConAgra Foods unit that runs Armour. "[But]he has diligently done what we've asked him to do." Bonds has also shilled for companies such as Pacific Bell.

So far, though, the big deals--pitching cars, soft drinks, and fast food--have eluded baseball's biggest bopper. His marketing agent, Reed Bergman, predicts that will change, though he declines to name a major deal in the offing. "Corporations realize that his exposure is going through the roof. They want to partner with him," says Bergman, head of Impact Sports Marketing in Atlanta.

Many of those companies might have flocked to Bonds years ago if Mr. Prickly wasn't such a PR challenge throughout his 16-year career. Many of his mates see him as self-absorbed, even though he almost single-handedly kept the Giants in the pennant race this year. In the clubhouse, he gets three lockers--his teammates each get one--and rates his own TV and a $3,000 black-leather recliner.

ALL SMILES. Bonds, whose baseball salary this year is $10.3 million, probably wouldn't be jumping at every endorsement deal even if more were being offered. "Clearly, Barry doesn't need the money[or] the fame. He has accomplished more on the baseball field than anybody in the history of the game," says Dennis Gilbert, his former agent. There's little doubt, though, that Bonds is trying to put on a happier face.

As the home runs have mounted, Bonds has been a model of gracious manners, reminding some observers of his godfather, Giants hero Willie Mays. At news conferences, Bonds flashes an infectious smile and handles questions like the team player critics claim he has never been. And after the terrorist attacks, he pledged $10,000 to the United Way for every new home run he hit this year.

"I'm sure [Barry's agents] are workingto make him more endearing," says Leonard. But will the makeover be enough? Leonard points out that September 11 and the fact that the home-run record was broken so recently could also limit the potential deals available to Bonds. Also, the runaway inflation in home runs over the past 25 years tends to devalue the achievements of power hitters like Bonds.

Advertisers already were watching their budgets before the terror attacks. Those still spending have a lineup of marketable baseball stars--retirement-bound Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. and Japanese phenom Ichiro Suzuki--to choose from. "Where is the shelf space for Barry Bonds?" asks David Carter of Sports Business Group, a sports-marketing firm in Redondo Beach, Calif. In the end, endorsements may be the one home run Bonds never hits.

Hyman is contributing editor for Sports Business.

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