- Darren Rovell, ESPN.com Sports Business reporter
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They're both 18 years old. They're both No. 1 picks.
But Marc-Andre Fleury isn't exactly LeBron James, just as the marketing avenues for National Hockey League players aren't as lucrative as those players in the National Basketball Association.
However, it's clear that Fleury is at the top of the NHL's rookie class.
To be fair, Fleury didn't get the same headstart that was afforded James. Since Fleury wasn't an official member of the NHL Players' Association until he played his first game, companies had to wait before manufacturing items like cards and jerseys. And though he signed a three-year contract on Oct. 6, there still isn't a guarantee he'll spend the entire season in the NHL, which is a concern to potential endorsers.
So while James' first jerseys and cards appeared days after he was drafted, plans to pump out items with Fleury were on hold until after he signed and it became clear he would make an appearance on hockey's biggest stage this season.
Even though he's only played 10 games, "Fleury Fury" has spread across the Northeast -- from his new stomping grounds of Pittsburgh to his hometown of Sorel, Quebec.
Fleury's No. 29 jerseys are already a top-10 seller on the league's Web site, aided in part by the Penguins team Web site, which has a banner advertisement that reads: "Get Your New Pittsburgh Penguins Fleury Jersey."
Fleury believers are eager to get their hands on other collectibles soon to be minted -- as long as the the 18-year-old netminder continues to stop shots -- and his autograph is already highly coveted.
More than 300 fans were waiting for Fleury in Toronto last Monday for his first-ever signing session. Four hundred others who couldn't attend paid in advance to receive their pictures in the mail.
"Most rookies don't get the press that he did," said Hersch Borenstein, president of The Frozen Pond Inc., who organized the signing and noted that the preordered amount was a company record. "And no one's really had a chance to get his autograph."
Borenstein has already sold 270 autographed photos and is meeting with Fleury soon so he can autograph 300 more, which are already promised to other buyers.
Cards issued by Topps, Pacific and Upper Deck in the coming months will have Fleury's picture on it and maybe his autograph. Fleury will sign at least 2,000 times for each of the three companies, which all have the option of putting him on their packaging, according to Fleury's agent Allan Walsh.
Though there is a high demand, in the collector's circle, Fleury is still a bargain.
James' signature on a basketball, sold by Upper Deck, retails for more than $600. His signature on a high school jersey costs more than $700. Frozen Pond customers paid $15 to have their pucks signed by Fleury, $22 more for a jersey.
Even the Penguins are behind in capitalizing on "Fleurymania" because team officials haven't had time to organize anything substantial. As a result, they've been unable to leverage Fleury and stop the slide in attendance, which through the first six games is down 18 percent from last year to a mere 10,226 fans per game. Fleury does appear with five other players on the team's billboard advertising and has been featured on a pack of collectible cards that were given out at a game last month. A photo of the rookie goalie, in his already recognizable bright yellow pads, with his stick on fire also was featured on the game program.
"When Mario (Lemieux) signed (after he was drafted in 1983), it was in June, so that whole summer was built around Mario," said Tom McMillan, the team's vice president of communications and marketing.
"No. 1 draft picks are supposed to come in and make a name for themselves," said Dan Warner, owner of The Puck Stops Here, a retail store located five minutes from Mellon Arena. "This guy has definitely done that. He's got big fans in Canada -- they're calling -- and people here are already giving him a good chance to win rookie of the year."
While James is scheduled to make more than $118 million in endorsement deal money over the next seven years, Fleury currently is dealing in thousands of dollars.
The fact that he's landed two local deals -- with Sprint PCS and a car dealership in Pittsburgh -- is impressive, given he's a relative newcomer. Sprint PCS has the option of using Fleury in print and radio advertisements in the future.
As it becomes more and more apparent that Fleury will stay in the NHL, more lucrative deals -- including equipment endorsements -- could become available.
Walsh said his client was in no rush to try to seek national endorsement deals -- which are scarce for NHL players. After more local deals are established, Fleury could possibly look to ink national deals in Canada first.
"Since he's from Canada and has played for Canada (in the World Junior Championship), that's where he is the most high profile right now," Walsh said.
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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