If you’re among the hordes of New York Mets fans calling for Chase Utley’s head since he broke Ruben Tejada’s leg with a hard slide Saturday, now would be a good time to stop reading. There’s a good chance the reviled Los Angeles Dodgers infielder could see a financial benefit from his new role as baseball’s most hated man.
Baseball fans are divided as to whether Utley’s slide was a hard-nosed example of old-fashioned baseball or a dirty play against a defenseless fielder, but one thing is certain: The incident has made Utley, a 36-year-old veteran with dwindling skills, an inescapable topic of conversation this week in just about every office, bar and gathering place in the country. And sponsors, both local and national, could take notice.
It's not unusual for disgraced former players to cash in on infamy. Baseball player Pete Rose, boxer Mike Tyson and Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch are just a few of the athletes who have turned dubious incidents into financial windfalls. In Utley’s case, it would take some finesse, given that Tejada was injured in the incident, but experts say the marketing opportunities are there if Utley is interested in pursuing them.
“I would think this puts him in a different light, because now casual fans know who he is. That probably wasn’t true before,” said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professional and instructor at Columbia University in New York.
Not that Utley needs the money. He’s earned more than $100 million during his 13-year career in professional baseball, mostly during his time as the linchpin of a vaunted mid-2000s Philadelphia Phillies lineup. Utley’s most notable endorsement deal is with German sports apparel company Adidas, which counts him among its top MLB representatives. A six-time All-Star and perennial MVP candidate during his time in Philadelphia, Utley is widely seen as a possible Hall of Famer when his playing days are over.
Utley’s numbers have dropped off significantly in recent years as injuries and age conspired to limit his effectiveness. His arrival in Los Angeles in a trade last summer was largely seen as his final shot to contribute to a playoff run. Utley is little more than a role player on Dodgers, who are one game away from elimination against a surging Mets team in the National League’s divisional series.
But “The Slide,” as it’s become known during endless media coverage since the weekend, has thrust Utley back into the conversation. Mets fans have been merciless in their expressions of hatred for Utley, who has been called a dirty player at best and an ISIS sympathizer at worst. The home crowd at New York’s Citi Field deafeningly chanted “We Want Utley” when the Mets jumped out to a commanding lead Tuesday night during their eventual 13-7 victory in Game 3.
On the other hand, Dodgers fans and baseball purists have defended Utley, claiming that the slide – which came during a pivotal moment in Los Angeles’ Game 2 win over the Mets – was exactly the sort of hard-nosed play that wins games in baseball’s playoffs. Utley’s workmanlike approach could play well with companies who take pride in that sort of grit, Favorito said.
“If there were ‘blue-collar’ type companies or Philadelphia-based companies who were kind of on the borderline looking for [pitchmen], I would think this puts him in a different light,” Favorito said.
There could be some national sponsorship opportunities, too, once enough time has passed. Tyson, a former world champion boxer, drew national scorn in the 1990s for a variety of offenses, including the infamous 1997 event where he bit off a piece of rival Evander Holyfield’s ear during a title match. In 2013, Tyson poked fun at the Holyfield incident in a “Foot Locker” commercial that has been viewed nearly 8 million times on YouTube.
Rose, the Cincinnati Reds legend who was banned for life from baseball after officials learned he had gambled on games, has similarly capitalized on his infamy. So has Zinedine Zidane, the French soccer player, who last year starred in a Visa commercial that mocked his notorious headbutt of an Italian rival during the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
“If it can be done tastefully, somehow, I think there are some opportunities [for Utley],” said Bob Dorfman, a sports sponsorship expert and executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco.
Take Marshawn Lynch, the Seahawks running back whose dislike for the media has polarized sports fans. Lynch’s reputation suffered last January when he refused to speak with the press ahead of Super Bowl XLIX, despite the threat of tens of thousands of dollars in fines. But last month, he starred in a nationally televised, tongue-in-cheek Pepsi campaign that made light of the incident. Utley can do the same thing, so long as he avoids disparaging the injured Tejada, Dorfman said.
Utley can also follow in the footsteps of players like former Boston Red Sox player Bill Buckner, whose infamous fielding gaffe during Game 6 of the 1986 World Series overshadowed an otherwise stellar career. Buckner turned that crippling mistake into a positive, through paid speaking appearances and autograph sessions. The same is true of Ralph Branca, the pitcher who surrendered the “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” to Bobby Thomson during the 1951 pennant race.
“Certainly on the speaking engagement tour, in that department, I would think he would be more in demand,” Dorfman said.
At Utley’s peak in 2010, about 31 percent of American consumers were aware of his existence, according to the Marketing Arm, a company whose “Celebrity DBI” index ranks athlete marketability. That number has likely dropped off in recent years during his struggles with injury, but it will see a spike this week given the amount of coverage the slide received, said Matt Delzell, managing director of the Marketing Arm’s celebrity talent acquisition group.
But any corresponding spike in endorsement offers would be limited in scope and relatively short-lived. Delzell compared Utley’s opportunity to that of Olympic athletes, who are propelled into the national consciousness during the Olympic Games but often fade back into obscurity soon after.
Utley alienated the entire New York media market and many baseball fans around the country when he slid into Tejada’s leg. With so many hostile conversations on a national level, Delzell asserts Utley’s opportunities would be limited to the Los Angeles area, where he has a base of support.
“In L.A., people are saying he’s a hard-nosed player who made a tough, hard-nosed play,” Delzell said. “Everywhere else, especially in New York, they’re singing a very different tune. I don’t think, nationally, this is going to do anything for Chase Utley.”
That’s probably for the best. Any other outcome would likely trigger a full-scale riot in New York.