This week, the Honus Wagner baseball card sold for a record $6.606 million. Although Wagner is considered one of the finest all-around players in baseball history, he was the first professional athlete to receive endorsement money for allowing the use of his name on a product.
Wagner began his career playing with the Louisville Colonels in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1900, he left Louisville to play for Pittsburgh. He was the National League Batting Champion in 1900, 1903 and 1904 and one year later signed a contract with the maker of Louisville Slugger bats.
The Wagner card is one of 524 baseball cards that were issued by American Tobacco between 1909 and 1911. The savvy American Tobacco brand used baseball players to promote its tobacco products by packaging the cards inside cigarette packs. On the reverse side of the Wagner card is a Piedmont cigarette advertisement.
The Wagner cards became a rarity because once ascertained that American Tobacco had issued his card without permission, he requested the company halt production. Although Wagner chewed tobacco, he did not want children buying cigarettes to get his card.
Over the years brands have inked deals with athletes across all major sports, from Converse (Chuck Taylor) to Nike (Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Cristiano Ronaldo) to Adidas (Lionel Messi).
Sports endorsements are a big business, and the next wave of deals will trickle down to college athletes. The NCAA has recently approved a temporary policy to allow college athletes in all three divisions to get paid for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).
Since Wagner inked the first endorsement deal, one thing is clear – brands will align their products and services with those that have an audience. However, like Wagner, the script has now been flipped.
Today, brands reserve the right to pull their endorsement if athletes or celebrities defy the most stringent morality clauses. The risk for brands and athletes is high, especially in the world of social media, where a post, photo, or video can make or break you.