The Most Profitable Rookie Sports Debuts

By Derek Simon | July 28, 2010 AAA
The Most Profitable Rookie Sports Debuts

It's been said that hope springs eternal and nowhere does that ring truer than in the world of professional sports, where past-year pessimism turns into foam-finger fanaticism with every offseason acquisition and departure. Arguably the most anticipated of these roster revisions is the signing of a team's top amateur prospect, or rookie. Initiated in 1936 by the National Football League (NFL), the amateur draft provides a means for weaker teams to get instantly better by allowing them to secure the services - or at least the rights to the services - of the nation's top collegiate or, in some cases, high school athletes.

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Ironically, the NFL's first-ever draft pick, Jay Berwanger, never played professional football. Berwanger became the first Heisman Trophy winner in 1935 (Berwanger's aunt reputedly used the prize as a doorstop for many years), but the University of Chicago grad took a job as a foam-rubber salesman after legendary Chicago Bears Coach George Halas balked at his salary request of $12,500 a year. Today, of course, such a price (the equivalent of $196,000 a season) would be a bargain for any player not named JaMarcus Russell, as top rookies can - and often do - have as much of an impact on a team's financial ledger as they do on its win-loss ledger.

Take, for example, the following rookie superstars:

Larry Bird
After compiling their worst record in 29 years, the Boston Celtics obtained Bird, the reigning College Player of the Year whom they'd drafted as a junior, for the 1979-1980 NBA campaign. With essentially the same cast that won just 29 games the previous season, the "Hick from French Lick" immediately transformed the Celtics into championship contenders, leading the team to 61 victories and an appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals. (Check out some stats on the most recent NBA finals in NBA Finals: By The Numbers.)

The Celtics won the NBA Championship the next year and Bird, along with longtime rival Earvin "Magic" Johnson, was credited with not only revitalizing his own team, but with rejuvenating the league as a whole. Boston Garden, home of the Celtics, was sold out for the final 541 games of Bird's amazing career and the slick-shooting forward appeared in numerous video games, commercials and other NBA promotional pieces.

Mark Fidrych
Ironically, a bird, albeit of a different - very different - feather, also helped the Detroit Tigers and Major League Baseball soar to new heights. In 1976, just a few years before "Larry the Legend" came to Beantown, Mark "The Bird" Fidrych arrived in the Motor City. Standing a gangly 6-feet, 3-inches tall, with a mop of curly blond hair doing its best to break free from the confinement of his baseball cap, Fidrych took the Majors by storm with his stellar pitching and peculiar antics during the United States' bicentennial year.

Talking to the ball, smoothing out the mound on his hands and knees, strutting around after recording an out and rejecting baseballs that had "hits in them" were all trademarks of the right-handed hurler who went on to be named the American League Rookie of the Year. Like Bird the basketball player, Bird the baseball player was a fan favorite. In his last eight starts of the 1976 season, Fidrych drew 334,123 folks out to the ballpark, an average of 41,765 per game - more than double the overall attendance average of 18,224 at Tiger Stadium that year. Often, the fans would refuse to leave until The Bird waved to them from the dugout.

"Fidrych popularized the curtain call in baseball," noted MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1977. "Now it's become a baseball tradition." (For more on baseball, check out A History Of Baseball Economics and Baseball Greats Who Were Paid Like Benchwarmers.)

LeBron James
Long before his now-infamous press conference announcing that he would be playing for the Miami Heat next season, LeBron James was attracting attention. During his high school years, James was named "Mr. Baketball" of Ohio three times and several of his games were televised on pay-per-view or ESPN2. In 2003, at the age of 18, "King James" (as he is often called) was drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers and the marketing madness began.

Before he even laced up a sneaker for the Cavs, James inked a $93 million endorsement deal with Nike (NYSE:NKE), ensuring that his footwear needs - along with a few others - would be met for some time to come. Other endorsement deals soon followed: for Sprite (NYSE:KO), Bubblicious (OTC:CDSCY), State Farm and McDonalds (NYSE:MCD). For awhile, it seemed like James was pitching more often and, arguably, more effectively than the starting rotations of many Major League Baseball teams.

The Cavaliers benefitted too, along with the city of Cleveland, as James pulled in what could best be described as a "King's" ransom. Attendance at Gund Arena (now known as Quicken Loans Arena, or simply "The Q") soared by nearly 7,000 fans a night during James' rookie season and the team sold out 16 (of 41) home games.

What's more, according to consumermiser.com, "radio listeners increased (twice as many), television ratings were up 300%, and local and national sporting goods retailers sold about $72 million in James jerseys during the first nine months the jerseys were on sale." (For more, check out Sports Stars Worth Every Penny.)

Stephen Strasburg
When Stephen Strasburg inked a four-year pact with the Washington Nationals worth $15.1 million plus incentives (a record contract for an amateur draftee) in the summer of 2009 - exactly 77 seconds before the signing deadline - he wasn't the only one with a grin on his face. The Nats acting general manager, Mike Rizzo, was pretty pleased too.

"The reason he signed - he wants to be in the big leagues, he wants to be a Washington National, he wants to win a Cy Young award and he wants to win championships in D.C." Rizzo told the Washington Post in August 2009. "That's the reason he signed with us here. Money was a nice perk and a nice byproduct for him, but he's here to pitch. He's chomping at the bit to get on the mound. He's ultra-ultra competitive, and I think he was getting a little tired of sitting around the house."

So far, both sides are still smiling. Making what Sports Illustrated called "the most hyped pitching debut the game has ever seen" on June 8 against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Strasburg promptly struck out the most hitters in an MLB debut since 1971 by fanning 14 Steel City sluggers. Better still, at least as far as the Nationals are concerned, is that 40,315 fans piled into Nationals Park to watch the big right-hander hurl. And that interest has remained high: in Strasburg's five home starts this year, attendance at Nationals Park has averaged 37,298, compared to 21,735 on days when the 21-year-old is not pitching.

The Bottom Line
When it comes to pro sports rookies, sometimes you get what you pay for - even if the initial asking price seems a little high. (For more, see 7 Costly Pro Athlete Screw-Ups.)

Catch up on your financial news; read Water Cooler Finance: The Unrelenting Claw Of Bernie Madoff.

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