Bryce Harper sat in front of his locker before a recent game and scrolled through pictures on his iPhone to show off his newest shoes.
“Nobody really saw this,” he said, pointing to the interior of the blue and white cleats with the Washington-area monuments that he designed and wore at the All-Star Game last year. “I did a cherry blossoms theme on the sock liner. That was just special to me.”
Harper has footwear for all occasions. They are part of his custom line from Under Armour. There was the floral Mother’s Day pattern, the orange-and-blue slushy design to honor his father last month, and of course, the electric green Phanatic cleats to mark his first opening day with the Phillies. With Cleveland hosting the All-Star Game next week, the star right fielder is ready to roll out an homage to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
There’s only one problem. For the first time since 2014, Harper isn’t an all-star.
Two things have become evident in the four months since the Phillies signed Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract. First, the 26-year-old is neither the best player nor even the best right fielder in baseball. And second, he’s the most recognizable and marketable player in the sport, a brand unto himself.
If those realities don’t seem as though they should be mutually exclusive, consider this: Harper entered the weekend with an .846 on-base plus slugging percentage that was 24th out of 60 outfielders who were on pace to qualify for the batting title. His strikeout rate is 26.8 percent, sixth-highest in the National League. Since his MVP season of 2015 with the Washington Nationals, he has been worth 13.2 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, 32nd in baseball and well behind Mike Trout (32.2) and Mookie Betts (26.6).
Yet Harper has a dozen active corporate partnerships that range from classic sports or baseball-related companies (Rawlings, Topps, Gatorade) to non-traditional ones (Jaguar, Hallmark, Blind Barber). T-Mobile teamed with Harper even before it struck a deal with Major League Baseball. In 2016, Harper signed a 10-year extension with Under Armour, and although financial terms weren’t disclosed, it was believed to be the largest endorsement deal ever for a baseball player, reportedly surpassing Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year deal with Nike for a little more than $1 million annually. Later this year, Harper will become the only active baseball player with a signature line of non-cleated turf trainers.
ESPN recently ranked Harper as the 99th-most famous athlete in the world based on internet searches, endorsements, and social media engagement. He was the only baseball player to crack the top 100.
So, no, Harper won’t be at the All-Star Game, but the Bryce Brand is ubiquitous.
“We’re a young start-up, kind of more fashion-forward than most of the other hair product brands, and he’s kind of a natural representation of that,” said Matt Breen, chief executive officer of Blind Barber, which will open a Center City location this fall in the Hale Building and lists Harper as an investor. “His hair and his beard are trademarks for him. He gets it from the fashion side. In terms of what we represent and what he wants to push out to the public off the field, it was a natural fit that we really couldn’t find elsewhere.”
Spencer Hawkins, a footwear designer for Under Armour, put it another way: “Bryce transcends baseball.”
Indeed, in a team sport that stresses conformity from the amateur levels through the big leagues, Harper has stood out for his individuality ever since he smeared so much eye black on his face in high school and junior college that he resembled an extra in “Braveheart.” These days, he’s known almost as much for his well-coiffed hair as for his prodigious left-handed power.
“I used to tease Bryce about those eyes and the hair,” agent Scott Boras said last week. “He’s a handsome man, but the eyes just breathe his intensity, and the hair is a reflection of that.”
Harper isn’t an ordinary celebrity pitchman who shoots a few commercials and cashes a check. He exhibits a level of engagement that is considered unique and has forged a close relationship with many of his partners.
To wit: Harper and Hawkins text and email regularly to exchange ideas for new designs. The “Harper 4” line dropped in May. It isn’t unusual for them to video chat late at night.
“A lot of ideas come, and sometimes I’m on Skype calls at 1 a.m.,” said Harper, for whom designing cleats is a hobby akin to watching a movie or playing video games. (Harper, by the way, is the cover boy for Sony PlayStation’s MLB The Show 2019.) “I dream it, and they put my dreams into action and make things happen for me. It’s fun to put the creativity of Under Armour to the brink.”
Take, for instance, the Phanatic cleats, a Harper brainstorm he experienced after he signed with the Phillies on March 2 that became all the opening-day rage three weeks later.
"I actually wanted to do a carpet thing, green to match [the Phanatic's] costume," Harper said. "Two weeks before the season I was like, 'Hey, this would be awesome.' They were like, 'We probably can't get that done, but we can paint it and make it look good with fuzzy laces and tie that into it.' We go back and forth like that all the time.
It’s fun to be able to put my mind to something and not always think baseball, baseball, baseball.
“It’s fun to be able to put my mind to something and not always think baseball, baseball, baseball.”
And it isn't only cleats. Breen said Harper helps pick out fragrances and holds for his Blind Barber product line. Harper is so involved, in fact, that he became an investor in the company last year.
"We literally work through dozens upon dozens of samples, both in terms of how the product performs, how it smells, how it looks, the branding,” Breen said. “He's definitely more receptive and communicative than your average person would be in his situation, and we really appreciate that."
Harper insists that none of it distracts from his day job. His brand might extend beyond baseball, but it’s baseball that enables him to cultivate his brand. So he schedules most of his commercial shoots and other endorsement obligations for the offseason.
"For him it creates the needed distraction from the game," Boras said. "When he gets into his product dynamics, there's a passion that comes through. I told him, 'You're one of the only people in sport that has an active billboard in competition through your shoes. Your shoes are reflective of an entire brand of personality.'"
Jaguar is a British automobile manufacturer that doesn’t give a hoot about baseball. Its executives told Harper as much when they signed him to an endorsement deal a few years ago.
So why did they want to work with him?
“I think they said it’s because I’m a little bit more edgy,” Harper recalled. “I guess I’m seen as a guy who’s clean but with a little bit of attitude. I don’t know. I just try to treat everybody with respect and do everything possible to be a good person on and off the field.”
Acuvue worked with Harper last winter to introduce a new contact lens that adapts to changing light conditions. Harper uses the product, but there was something else that appealed to the company, which had never before used a baseball player as a pitchman.
“This is one of the bigger partnerships that we’ve ever done and probably one of the most high-profile athletes that we’ve ever worked with,” said Jacquie Henderson, Acuvue’s vice president of marketing. “Part of the reason for that is this product is really revolutionary. He’s stepping up his game now with the Phillies and the contract, and we feel like we’re at a stage where we’re stepping up our game with this product.”
Hawkins sums it up like this: “I see him as one of the only people in baseball to actually be an influencer.”
Even when he isn’t an All-Star.
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