Crosby: The 'Roethlisberger of the NHL'?
NEW YORK -- Sidney Crosby isn't going to New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but if the 17-year-old phenom lives up to the hype, he shouldn't have much trouble making a buck in a Pittsburgh.
The Penguins won Friday's draft lottery and confirmed they would select Crosby in next week's NHL draft.
Sports marketers say that Crosby won't be hindered by playing in Pittsburgh, which ranks 22nd in the United States in television market size.
"Sidney is going to generate the kind of interest that Mario did," said Dr. John Lanasa, chairman of sports marketing at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "He's going to be the Ben Roethlisberger of the NHL."
After winning his first 14 starts, an NFL rookie record, Roethlisberger Fever hit Pittsburgh. Roethlisberger signed deals with Nike and Campbell's Soup. His jersey became a league best-seller, restaurants named sandwiches after him and a food company sold 75,000 packages of licensed Big Ben beef jerky in less than a month.
"For a small market, Pittsburgh is as prideful as they come," said Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner. "They back their sports teams, they demand a lot, but when their players come through, they embrace them like no other market."
The NHL, as well as Crosby, likely benefits from his playing in the United States. Hockey needs more help in the U.S. than it does in Canada and Crosby will still be seen as the nation's pride and joy.
The 5-11 center from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, is still expected to receive offers for endorsement deals from companies in Canada. Two of his three deals he already has -- Gatorade and Telus -- are Canada-only endorsements, while the third is with Reebok. RBK Hockey was launched in January and Crosby, like LeBron James is to Nike, is already the face of the company.
Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing analyst at Pickett Advertising, says he doesn't expect Crosby to make millions, at least "until he leads the Penguins to a Stanley Cup."
But even with the possible negative effects of the lockout, combined with the fact that it has become harder to rationalize hockey as one of America's major sports, the sense from the business community is that there will be little wait-and-see with Crosby.
The youngster's IMG agent, Pat Brisson, says "most major brands have already approached us" and that long-term deals are the goal.
Don't expect major sponsorship deals to be announced shortly. After learning that Pittsburgh received the No. 1 pick, Crosby emphasized that he wasn't thinking about pitching products.
"That's part of being a hockey player," he said. "At the same time, I'm thinking about playing hockey right now and other things don't really get in the way of that."
The NHL lockout actually might have helped Crosby. Talk of his coming into the league gave hard-core fans something to look forward to.
"Even though we didn't have hockey this year, interest in him continued to increase," Brisson said.
Although Anaheim, which received the No. 2 pick, is closer to a major market in Los Angeles, some point out that the East Coast market provides the chance for a greater percentage of the country to see Crosby.
"It's a little harder to be the next Great One if, when you play your games, everyone is sleeping on the other side of the country," said Maury Gostfrand of New York-based management firm RLR & Associates.
Since Pittsburgh is in the same division as the Rangers and the Islanders, Crosby will be guaranteed eight games in New York next season.
While some sports marketers said that Crosby's big payday would have come if he landed in New York with the Rangers, others -- including ESPN.com fans who voted in a SportsNation Poll -- say that being in Pittsburgh might actually be better.
"He could have gotten lost in New York," said Gil Pagovich of Maxximum Marketing, a sports marketing firm that represents New York Giants running back Tiki Barber. "Now that he's in Pittsburgh, he can do endorsements with Mario, and those guys will be watched when the football season ends, because there is no NBA game in town."
Seventy percent of ESPN.com readers who took the Crosby poll said that playing in Pittsburgh wouldn't hurt his star power.
"I believe this is a new era," Brisson said. "Information flies so rapidly that smaller markets aren't as small as they once were."
Crosby's merchandise has been selling very well, according to Brisson. Fans have been purchasing autographed photos and jerseys through the player's Web site, www.crosby87.com.
His memorabilia is managed by a Canadian company called Frameworth Sports, which is already taking pre-orders on signed Pittsburgh Penguins Crosby Jerseys at $599 apiece.
Earlier this year, Crosby's Team Canada jersey that he wore in the gold medal game at the IIHF World Junior Championships was stolen. When it was recovered, it was auctioned off, with the proceeds going toward youth hockey charities and south Asian tsunami relief. The jersey yielded an astounding high bid of $22,100.
Tollner said that last season Roethlisberger got paid to sign more than 7,000 autographs at signings, most of which had to be private because the quarterback was concerned he'd eventually have to get up and stop with a huge line of people still standing.
"There's clearly more room for sports heroes in Pittsburgh," Tollner said. "Ben has primed the market for Sidney."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com.