Bryce Harper is baseball’s first star born in the age of social media.
If you somewhat follow baseball, then you should know his story by now. His meteoric rise to the big show began in 2009 when at the age of 16 he was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, a Las Vegas prodigy with prodigious power ordained as the next LeBron James.
He put his pro career on the fast track by taking his GED and enrolled in a community college. By age 17, he was the No. 1 overall pick of the Washington Nationals. He made his MLB debut in 2012 and earned Rookie of the Year honors. At the tender age of 22, a monster 2015 season made him the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history.
The historic campaign stamped his name as one of the sport’s rising stars, as well as its most sought after pitchman.
Last May, Under Armour added yet another distinction to Harper’s growing list of accolades—owner of the largest endorsement contract ever signed by a baseball player, a reported 10-year extension for a little more than $1 million a year. To boot, it was paired with his own signature line of shoes.
“At a very young age, UA gave me the opportunity, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better. They really took me in like family. They did everything they could to help me out on a daily basis, both on and off the field,” Harper tells [a]listdaily, seconds after being flanked with UA founder and CEO Kevin Plank. “You want to be with companies that invest in you and know that you have the talent to possibly be one of the best baseball players or athletes in the professional sport that you play. Kevin does a great job with all of the UA athletes, and not just me. It’s a great brand to be a part of and I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
The pact with the brand, which also included UA stock, is a big boon for Harper because baseball stars get enormous contracts to play the game but often have difficulty securing endorsement deals similar to the stars in other sports because of baseball’s lack of global exposure.
In the prime of his career, the personality-filled and unapologetically brash Harper is in pole position to demand dollars from sponsors who previously spoiled the likes of Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols. In addition to being endorsed by UA for the previous six years, Harper has already secured deals with Gatorade, Jaguar, T-Mobile, MusclePharm and New Era.
And now he has his own shoe. The 24-year-old launched his own line of cleats with the UA Harper One during the All-Star Game in July.
“When UA came to me and told me about branching it out and making my own shoe I was kind of shocked and happy at the same time. It’s a dream come true,” Harper says. “I was very excited to be a part of that process. They really let me spearhead it by letting them know what I wanted with the feel, and look, and give back with my Las Vegas roots. There are little hints of who I am in the shoe. I couldn’t have asked for a better look for it. That was the biggest thing. I wanted for it to be comfortable, and something that doesn’t fall apart so kids can go to the store and take advantage of buying the shoe. And it’s something I can wear every day. It’s nice.”
The five-year right fielder and millennial/Gen Z fan favorite says the best part of having his own shoe is seeing people wear it. UA is pushing for the product to end up in the hands of consumers with the global marketing campaign “It Comes From Below.”
The message? “Every great sporting moment starts with the feet.”
“Being able to see kids out there wearing my cleat is cool. It’s like wearing certain brands when you were growing up—you want to be like that player,” Harper says. “When they are wearing my cleats, I feel like they want to be like me. I’m very blessed and humble to see someone wearing my product, and I can’t thank them enough for doing it.”
UA has only been making shoes since 2006 and the category represents just 17 percent of their entire sales. With sights on having a market share of the cleats category, especially with kids, it should help shrug off some of the struggles they’ve experienced in more lucrative shoes categories such as basketball and running, areas of which Nike dominates at 61 percent of all sales in the US.
However, on the cusp of Fortune 500 glory, UA is demanding a serious seat at the performance apparel, equipment and connected fitness table with the likes of Nike, Adidas and Reebok. They’ve steadily been hitting home runs by signing a stable of first-rate endorsers with the likes of Tom Brady, Michael Phelps, Jordan Spieth, Steph Curry, Cam Newton, Clayton Kershaw and the four-time All-Star Harper.
Already with more than 400 individual athlete partnerships across baseball, UA furthered their foothold in baseball in December by becoming MLB’s exclusive uniform provider. Their first professional league uniform deal will be for 10 years and kick into gear in 2020. The savvy moves have afforded the brand, which anticipates revenues of $4.9 billion for 2016, to steadily gain ground with a big bag of major marketing tricks. Athletes like Harper are noticing.
“I don’t want relationships to be watered down,” Harper says when asked what it’s like to work with brands. “I don’t want to just be with any product that’s out there. I don’t want to be with companies for only a year, or two months, and say ‘see ya later.’ I’m very fortunate to be associated with some very good products and can’t thank those people enough for what they do, and what they bring.”
Harper surely enjoys the spoils from sponsors off the field because of the monstrous numbers he’s put on it. Being marketable is one thing. Being marketable and an MVP candidate year-in and year-out is another.
Harper struggled to replicate his historic MVP season by batting a career low .243 in 2016—a campaign that was considered a down year altered by playing through a right shoulder injury.
He spent the offseason by going back to the basics and doing what originally got him there—swinging with his father Ron back home in Las Vegas.
“I’ve been in the gym every single day doing everything possible to get better,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing. You want to go into every single offseason and pick something to get better at. The swing has been feeling great. It feels amazing. I’ve been trying to get better, doing everything I can to get to that next step of getting the Nationals further into the postseason.”
Harper’s offseason was highlighted by marrying his longtime girlfriend Kayla Varner and avoiding arbitration with the Nationals by reaching a one-year, $13.6 million deal. Set to become a free agent after the 2018 season, his agent Scott Boras is reportedly seeking a deal in excess of 10 years and $400 million.
For now, it’s back to baseball again. Position players for the Nationals are scheduled to report for Spring Training on February 17, and Harper is champing at the bit to prove that a sub-par season, to his standards at least, was an exception and not a new norm.
“We have a great team and a great group of guys, and I know we are all looking forward to arriving in West Palm Beach for Spring Training and getting into Nationals Park and playing in front of our fans again,” he says. “I’m excited about it. I know everyone else is excited about it, too. I can’t wait to see what 2017 holds.”