If Aaron Judge had appeared in an ESPN ad a year ago, he might have been mistaken for a tall intern, or perhaps a reject from a mascot tryout who failed to fit into the bird suit.
“And now, he’s the lead in our longest-standing campaign,” said Carrie Brzezinski, ESPN’s vice president of CreativeWorks and marketing solutions.
That sums up the young Yankee’s meteoric rise into the national sports consciousness, and with it a burgeoning, downright Jeter-ian level of marketability.
Most recent example: Two new “This is SportsCenter” spots.
In one, titled “Home Run Trot,” he practices what he did 52 times last regular season on a treadmill at the ESPN gym. In the other, “All Rise,” his “colleagues” stand up when he enters a conference room for a meeting.
Adding to the honor, Judge’s ads kicked off a reboot of the campaign after a yearlong hiatus during which ESPN switched from its longtime agency, Wieden+Kennedy, to in-house production.
Brzezinski said hiring Judge was an easy decision, given the player, the person, the team, and the time of year.
“When we went to the white board, he was one of the first athletes we wrote down,” she said. “We started aligning the stars. Baseball season, Opening Day, felt like the right time to come out. Then, he has just got a great name. Creatively, that started to spark a lot of things for us.”
ESPN is not alone, of course. Judge took things slowly on the marketing front last season, in part because he wanted to focus on fully establishing himself, in part because by the time he was famous, he was busy with this primary job.
The ESPN ads were shot in January.
“When it comes to the season, my main goal, all of my energy, is focused on winning that ballgame on that day,” he said. “So I don’t want to think about, ‘Hey, I have to go do this on this day. I have to worry about this. I have to make sure I save time for this on certain off days.’
“Off days during the season, those are crucial; you have to save those when you can . . . All the off-field stuff, it will be there. Never be in a rush thinking that this is a one-time thing. It’s going to come back around, and if it doesn’t then it wasn’t something that was meant to be.”
Judge’s first big marketing announcement of the offseason came in November, when he signed with Pepsi, a big brand for a big guy.
Justin Toman, senior director of Pepsico sports marketing, said initial talks with Judge had begun last summer.
“What caught our eye, which is what I think caught most fans’ eyes initially when he set foot onto the field, is he just seems to be one of the most exciting players in baseball, and he’s a great ambassador for our brand as well,” Toman said.
“He just has a larger-than-life stature in the game and how he plays, and I think fans immediately take notice, and we certainly did as a sponsor . . . I think we have a really powerful recipe for success on our hands.”
Judge starred in a widely viewed video of his first day of “work” at Pepsi in November. With the season underway, look for him not only in ads, but on products themselves, including Pepsi, Pepsi Zero Sugar and Diet Pepsi.
“We will be pulling all the marketing levers with Aaron,” Toman said. “We’re going to be using him across the full spectrum: TV, radio, out-of-home in New York, social media, and of course a really big Pepsi retail program, including packaging, in the New York area.”
The facts that Pepsi is headquartered in nearby Purchase, has an existing partnership with the Yankees and was in on the Judge phenomenon early all are bonuses.
“It’s a very special thing in sports when you have such a great athlete and such a great guy and ambassador for your brand, and you can kind of start that journey together,” Toman said.
Judge is careful about his public utterances, but Toman insisted he has a sense of humor, and recalled a well-received segment on “The Tonight Show” last May in which a barely disguised Judge asked Yankees fans to comment on Aaron Judge, and most had no idea who he was.
“In working with him a few times, he’s funny, man,” Toman said. “I think people will realize he’s got a little bit of a knack for that stuff in the coming weeks and months as we do different things with him.”
Brzezinski agreed that Judge can act, but in neither of his “This is SportsCenter” ads does he utter a word.
“With this campaign we want to write to the athlete’s personality,” she said. “So as we scripted these we thought about, ‘what are ways in which he can be himself?’ So in ‘Home Run Trot,’ there is no better way to clearly bring him to life in what he does in our world. He sort of acted through action in that way, and that was intentional.”
By the way, Judge brought his parents along for the shoot. They probably recall the early days of the campaign better than their son, who was 2 years old when it debuted.
Judge added another major deal, with adidas, on Tuesday, two days before the opener. Jeff McGillis, adidas’ head of U.S. Team Sports, said the company plans to collaborate with him on product designs, among other things.
“Aaron is a phenomenal athlete, and his style, personality and creator mentality make him the perfect ambassador for adidas Baseball,” he said.
McGillis said New York is a key city for adidas and that it “is a place that all brands want to have a presence.” But he added, “No matter what team Aaron played for, he’s a creator and he’s inspirational and aspirational for people.”
But wait, there’s more! Judge also is the cover athlete for “MLB The Show 18” video game, and will appear early and often on baseball cards near you.
Panini has had a trading card deal with him the past two years, and during and after the 2017 season has seen his cards command eye-popping prices on the resale market.
Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing at Panini America, said Judge has “a ton of different things” that play into his desirability among collectors, including his production, his personality and the fact that he is a Yankee.
“He’s in a nice spot right now,” Howarth said, “because as you know after Derek [Jeter] left there was kind of this void in the marketplace for someone to come in and take ownership and be that face, and Aaron is certainly that guy . . . He definitely was the most collectible baseball player last year.”
Panini sells a variety of cards, from old-school, affordable Donruss to a high-end, limited-production “National Treasures” line. Judge is popular at every price.
“I think his marketability kind of translates across demographics,” Howarth said. “It’s not just the young kids who like watching Aaron Judge play and want to get his trading cards. It’s the middle-aged guys — I guess me — and guys older than me that really love what he’s doing.”
Panini announced a deal with Mickey Mantle’s estate last year.
“I know from talking to [his sons] Danny and David Mantle that they really love what they see in [Judge],” Howarth said, “and that’s obviously really good to have those guys excited.”
Join the club.
With Erik Boland
Aaron Judge is in the early stages of his endorsement life and has a long way to go to match some of his Yankees predecessors in the marketing game.
The team’s stars have been at it for a century, especially the Babe Ruth of athlete endorsers: Babe Ruth himself.
A catalog of Yankees in old Gillette ads alone would fill the sports section.
A not-even-remotely-close-to-comprehensive list of some memorable Bombers partnerships:
Mickey Mantle: “I want my Maypo!” for Maypo cereal. Also appeared in numerous cigarette ads for R.J. Reynolds’ brands Camel and Viceroy, and Post Cereal products including Alpha Bits.
Yogi Berra: “Me for Yoo-Hoo!” He helped make that chocolate drink famous.
Lou Gehrig: “Breakfast of Champions.” He was the first athlete to appear on a Wheaties box, in 1934.
Babe Ruth: American Athletic Underwear (really) and dozens of other products incluing White Owl cigars and Quaker cereal.
Billy Martin & George Steinbrenner: “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” The classic Miller Lite commercials.
Joe DiMaggio: His name was synonomous with “Mr. Coffee.”