Daily Record Business Writer
April 2, 2009 6:16 PM
When the Orioles signed 25-year-old Nick Markakis to a six-year, $66.1 million contract extension in February, the team brought home its top priority in the offseason.
His future in Baltimore no longer a question mark, Markakis has hired a local firm to build his brand and catapult him into the national sports scene.
But for Markakis to jump from local hero to national celebrity while playing in a midsized market, the onus is on him not to just be good — he has to be great.
There are two ways that can happen, said John Maroon, president and founder of Markakis’ new agency, Marriottsville-based Maroon PR. One is to “catch lightning in a bottle” and garner national media attention through some extraordinary turn of events.
That happened to sports agent Joe Linta’s client, Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, when the rookie led the underdog team to an 11-5 record last season and one win away from the Super Bowl. Since then, endorsement deals, including one from Pizza Hut, have been pouring in during the offseason, Linta said.
“That was a complete function of success on the field,” said Linta. “When Joe was doing that, he was getting local and national media attention. And that made him a national name.”
Although the offers have been lucrative, Linta said he and Flacco have been choosy in picking which ones to explore.
There’s good reason for that, said David Warschawski, a branding expert and founder of Baltimore-based Warschawski public relations agency.
“You have to be careful about creating that brand too quickly,” he said. “It is very hard to create an image for fans, and then when you ask [your client] to live up to that image ... you might find it isn’t truly who he is.”
Warschawski noted that might have been the case for Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who sprung to worldwide idol status after he won a record eight gold medals in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing. But then a February photo of Phelps smoking a bong at a party resulted in his sponsor Kellogg cereal’s decision to not renew his contract.
“The down-home, blue-collar guy that Phelps was marketed as was maybe not truly who he is, and that’s created problems for the Phelps brand,” Warschawski said.
Barring a miraculous turnaround that involves the Orioles in the World Series this fall, the way to start building Markakis’ brand now is the way Maroon’s last Orioles client, Cal Ripken Jr., did it: through consistency and a built-up reputation as a workhorse and exceptional ballplayer.
“Basically, it’s what do people think about when they hear your name? That is your brand in a nutshell,” said Maroon. “So what we want people to think of is Nick is a guy that cares about Maryland and is an outstanding baseball player — which is what people here think now — and continue that on a national scale.”
Markakis’ numbers are promising: Last year, his third in the major leagues, he batted .306, slugged 20 home runs and drove in 87. He led the majors with 17 outfield assists, and Yahoo! Sports ranks him 34th overall this year among fantasy baseball players.
On the field, Markakis said he hopes to be like perennial All-Star Pete Rose, who’s work ethic (even when being walked, Rose would sprint to first base) earned him the nickname “Charlie Hustle.”
“He played hard and gave 100 percent each time he stepped on the field,” Markakis said in an e-mail.
But building your image on your work ethic isn’t sexy and it takes time, said Ryan Schinman, president and founder of Platinum Rye Entertainment in New York.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” he said. “Look at how long it took Cal — nobody was talking about the [consecutive game] streak his fourth year.”
One upside is that Markakis’ understated qualities and hardworking image are similar to Ripken’s and some say it’s a formula that works well here.
“He fits the mold of what Baltimore fans have come to expect from their franchise players,” Warschawski said. “Those similarities to Cal: keep the focus on the game and prove it on the field, be consistent, don’t be flashy — that’s valued here and might not be as valued in other major markets.”
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