The Phillies have never had a player like Bryce Harper.
They have had the greatest third baseman in baseball history in Mike Schmidt and one of its greatest left-handers in Steve Carlton. They have had MVPs, like Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard; Cy Young winners, like Roy Halladay; and All-Stars like Chase Utley, Dick Allen, Robin Roberts and Richie Ashburn.
But there are great players, and then there are superstars -- such as Derek Jeter, Ken Griffey Jr., Bo Jackson, Reggie Jackson and Pete Rose, players who could claim they were the most famous baseball player in the world at one time or another. Rose is probably the only former Phillies player who can say that.
We are not talking WAR, folks. We are talking Q Rating.
Harper can win an MVP or two, of course, making Harper’s Bazaar (as his agent Scott Boras once put it) an exciting and lucrative place to be. The Phillies have learned as much since Harper signed a 13-year, $330 million contract on March 1.
“I’ve had so many really cool opportunities because of it,” Harper says. “I’ve played golf with Jordan Spieth and Michael Phelps, just us three, because I work with Under Armour. I’ve gotten to go to the Super Bowl because of Gatorade. They had a party a few years ago and there’s Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm and Peyton Manning standing there. I’m hanging out and talking to Peyton Manning. It’s pretty dang cool to be around these people that I’ve grown up watching.”
These people are Harper’s peers. Harper got the cover of ESPN’s “World Fame 100” edition this spring because he ranked among the most famous athletes in the world -- football, basketball, soccer, hockey, cricket, boxing, etc. -- based on a combination of Google searches, endorsement dollars and social media followers.
Harper’s recognition among sports fans in the United States is 52 percent, according to Q Scores’ most recent data. No baseball player ranked higher, with the average among 45 baseball players surveyed at 40 percent. Because of his star power, the 2015 National League MVP has national endorsements with sports-related companies like Gatorade, Under Armour, Rawlings, Topps and MLB The Show. He has an ownership stake in Warrior Black, which is an anti-glare product (aka eye black). But he also has deals with non-sports brands like Jaguar, T-Mobile, Hallmark, Acuvue and grooming company Blind Barber, in which he also has an ownership stake. Harper’s national exposure makes him an attraction wherever he goes, and somebody that companies want to work with.
“The contract, obviously, being the top-paid player in the game when he signed, and then being certainly one of the few $300 million athletes in the world, places him in a venue that most athletes never get to,” Boras says. “The contract documented his stardom, if you will.”
Harper’s combination of recognizability and stature in the game have affected the Phillies’ bottom line in just a few short months.
“We’ve all been around baseball a long time,” Phillies vice president of business affairs Howard Smith says. “If you had asked me how this thing was going to play out, in terms of Bryce showing up, and what he was going to say and what he was going to do and how things would go from there, I never would have predicted it. I never would have predicted him being as incredibly savvy as he was when he showed up and how he connected to Philly. He was all-in, making relationships with all the other teams in town, connecting to Phillies fans through the Phanatic, knowing how important the Phanatic is to kids and that we need to market the game to kids. The amount of sophistication that he brought from Day 1 was extraordinary.”
QUANTIFYING THE HARPER EFFECT
There have been quantitative and qualitative impacts since Harper joined the Phillies in March.
Ticket sales are up more than 750,000 from this point last year. TV ratings are up nearly 40 percent. The Phillies rank among the top five teams in baseball in growth on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Merchandise sales have skyrocketed.
A couple years ago the Phillies’ merchandise store at Citizens Bank Park sold mostly jerseys and T-shirts of heritage players like Schmidt, Carlton and Greg Luzinski. Anybody who attended a Phillies game from 2016-18 can attest to that. There were a ton of well-worn Rollins, Utley, Howard and Halladay jerseys and T-shirts in the stands, with a smattering of Rhys Hoskins and Aaron Nola.
Fans celebrated the past because they seemed indifferent about the future.
The feeling had started to change before Harper signed. Andrew McCutchen, J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura are former All-Stars, and in McCutchen’s case, a former MVP. The Phillies acquired them in the offseason. But then Harper signed and pushed everything over the top.
“It was a moment for our fans like, OK, this is real,” Smith says. “Not only did he do unbelievably well, but all of the boats went up with the tide. Now you go into the store on a game night and it’s packed. We’re not just selling Bryce T-shirts and jerseys. It’s everything. It’s everything Phillies. It feels to me like how it should have felt back in the day, when this place was rocking.”
Licensees that had forgotten about the Phillies the past few years suddenly found their number again and started calling.
Hey, remember us? How can we get our merchandise into your store?
Those licensees are offering more creative, more interesting products, meaning the Phillies have more things to sell to fans other than just T-shirts and jerseys.
Of course, the ticket sales, TV ratings and merchandise sales are tangible benefits. They can be placed on a spreadsheet and compared to seasons past. But the intangible benefits from Harper’s presence are there, too. Front office employees are busier and presumably happier because it is more fun to work for a team that is relevant, not only locally, but nationally. Ticket sellers and ticket takers are taking more phone calls and scanning more people through the turnstiles. Security guards are busier. Team store employees are restocking shelves more frequently. Game-day employees at concession stands are handling longer and steadier lines.
Fans are remaining at games later. If they know they have one more opportunity to see Harper hit, they will wait another inning before trying to beat traffic. If it means their kids miss bedtime by 30 minutes or so, it’s OK.
It’s Bryce. It’s who they came to see.
“The buzz is back at the ballpark,” Phillies vice president of marketing and new media Michael Harris says. “The energy is different. When you walk through the city now you see Phillies hats and T-shirts everywhere. While there is a lot of Harper, it extends to the broader team -- Hoskins, Nola, Realmuto, McCutchen. We can go on and on. The impact has been enormous on a multitude of levels.”
BRYCE BRINGS THE BUZZ
The phone calls started coming into Boras Corp. almost immediately after Harper signed with the Phillies. Every car dealer in the Philadelphia area wanted to put him in their luxury vehicle. Harper passed. (He gets a custom Jaguar every year.) Other local companies reached out. Local organizations wanted to honor him at various events, even though he had been in town only a few minutes.
Harper’s team at Boras Corp. helps him navigate these never-ending opportunities because he values his time and because his performance on the field matters most.
“I’ve said this a million times, I want to be good on the baseball field and the other stuff will take care of itself,” Harper says. “I do enjoy it, to an extent. When they come to me and say, 'Hey, this company, this company or this company wants to work with you,' I really try to pick and choose who I want to set myself up with and what companies I really see myself with long term. I don’t like the one-offs where it’s like, we’ll work a deal out and then maybe next year you’ll come back. I really try to situate myself with companies I can see myself with for a long time.”
Under Armour is one of those companies. Harper had the green Phanatic spikes for Opening Day at Citizens Bank Park. He has had custom-made spikes for Jackie Robinson Day, Mother’s Day and Memorial Day.
More are coming.
“It’s almost as though we’ve created a canvas, if you will,” Boras says. “Our concept is that Bryce’s shoes, which are worn in competition, are in effect an artistic canvas for both Bryce and the creators of Under Armour to have a personal creative billboard with his shoes. It was a concept that we proposed to them and they kind of adopted, and hence you had the Phillie Phanatic shoes on the opener, which I think are going to follow with an individual line of tennis shoes for kids around that. I think you can bring his spirit to the game.”
Harper meets every offseason to discuss what he wants to do with his brand. What are the goals for himself and his family? What are some companies he would like to work with? What is a market he would like to enter? Harper wanted to be with Gatorade since he was a kid. Beverage companies like Red Bull and Vitamin Water recruited him early, but he passed because he hoped something could happen with Gatorade.
The company approached him a few years ago.
“It’s so great to work with a sports-based company that understands athletes, that understands commercial times and when it would be good for me,” Harper said. “But as I’ve gotten older I’ve also looked at different companies and said, 'Man, it would be fun to work with them.'
“I understand that I do things because I’m a baseball player. But I also want to do things that I love other than baseball.”
It might be a grooming company, like Blind Barber, or a contact-lens company, like Acuvue, which Harper used before he got his endorsement deal. If he uses the product, he might be interested in it. It could be anything from cars to bone broth to gloves to vacuum cleaners.
If Harper doesn’t use it, he won’t try to sell it.
“I want to work with companies that I use every single day,” he says.
MORE TO COME
Harper got out of the gate strong with the Phillies, slumped in May and is now heating up again. While he is the rare baseball player whose stardom isn’t entirely connected to performance, if Harper plays like an MVP and the Phillies win, there is no reason to think his brand -- as well as the Phillies’ -- will not continue to grow.
“Philadelphia has brought more certification of what Bryce Harper was expected to be and therefore a continuation of what began in Washington is the best way to describe it,” Boras says. “[The Nationals’] attendance went from about 1.8 million to 2.5 million when he arrived. So, what’s going on in Philadelphia went on in Washington D.C.”
Given Harper’s 13-year contract, this marriage of player and city still has plenty of room to grow.
“And we have to remember he’s only been in Philadelphia for a few months,” Harris says. “He’s going to be here the rest of his career. The longer he’s here the more he’s going to assimilate into the foundation, spirit and culture of the city. He gets it and he’s genuine about it. I think we all feel like we’re so lucky to have him.”
Todd Zolecki has covered the Phillies since 2003, and for MLB.com since 2009. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook .