For years, New Balance did not endorse athletes in major professional sports. It did sign contracts with runners, but wouldn’t use those athletes in advertisements, in contrast with other sportswear giants that built whole ad campaigns around a single star.
But in 2010, the Brighton-based sneaker brand decided to get in the game and focused on baseball — getting 100 players to wear its cleats.
Most recently, New Balance has announced two more All-Star signings, with the St. Louis Cardinals’ Yadier Molina and with Josh Beckett, the former Red Sox pitcher now on the Los Angeles Dodgers. The company has 300 active players under endorsement — approximately 40 percent of MLB’s current roster.
“They’re obviously making a statement that they’re in the endorsement game,” said Stephen A. Greyser, a Harvard Business School professor and sports marketing expert.
“They want their athletic gear to be synonymous with the MLB.”
The company chose to dive into baseball endorsements instead of those from other sports because its baseball cleats were some of the company’s strongest products. And executives at New Balance decided it could take on industry giants like Nike Inc. and Reebok International Ltd. in that specific market.
Mark Cavanaugh, New Balance’s general manager of sports marketing, came to the company in 2008 from Nike and has helped form the endorsement program.
‘We set out to literally jump on the field and get our product on another level.’
“We had a product line we felt was big enough to compete with the bigger brands, with baseball being one of the biggest participation sports in the world,” he said. “We set out to literally jump on the field and get our product on another level.”
In addition to Molina and Beckett, the company has signed a number of All-Stars, including Dustin Pedroia, Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, who switched from Nike when his contract was up, and Angels pitcher C.J. Wilson.
New Balance won’t disclose terms of its endorsements. But the company does build into every contract a charity component. Each athlete spends a certain amount of time and money serving underprivileged communities; in return, New Balance provides them with a separate fund of money and merchandise for the charity of their choice.
For more established athletes, such as triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera of the Detroit Tigers, New Balance contributes money and gear to their foundations.
New Balance helps younger players choose programs to partner with, usually school sports programs or those serving at-risk youth, Cavanaugh said.
“We wanted to stay true to the brand,” he said. “We operate a lot within our communities, and we wanted to carry that attitude with us.”
Derek Boyle, president of Sports Identity Inc., a sports marketing firm in Watertown, said that although many sports companies informally contribute to an athlete’s charity efforts, building that into contracts makes New Balance stand out.
“I think it’s a great angle,” Boyle said. “It’s a differentiator for them.”
Indeed, New Balance is hoping the charity aspect gives it an edge with athletes as it tries to be the top elite footwear brand in baseball in just a few short years — despite Nike and Reebok having a strong presence in the sport, and with a relative newcomer, Under Armour, vying for a top spot, too.
“We’re very realistic about who we are and the size of our company,” Cavanaugh said.
New Balance has all of its players wearing one of two cleats on the field, the MB3000 or MB4040. That exposes the company’s cleats to millions of fans, but Boyle said there is a risk for New Balance: One of its star endorsees could turn up in the news for bad behavior, such as drunken driving or domestic assault.
Puma, for example, dropped former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez one day after he was arrested and charged with murder in the death of a 27-year-old Dorchester man.
But in addition to ensuring that its athletes have a strong commitment to philanthropy, Cavanaugh said, New Balance wants them to agree with its philosophy of “responsible leadership.”
“When you’re investing millions of dollars into an athlete, you needed to make sure they’re going to represent your brand,” Cavanaugh said.
“We’re very quick to terminate athletes that don’t adhere to our morals clause.”Gail Waterhouse can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @gailwaterhouse.