In December, Reebok-CCM signed Erie Otters forward Connor McDavid of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) to a five-year endorsement agreement. McDavid is 15-years old, and is the third player to ever gain exceptional player status, thus allowing him to play in the OHL before his 16th birthday. By all accounts, McDavid is the next Sidney Crosby, and currently “The Next One”, a title given in Canada to the next potential Wayne Gretzky. For Reebok, this deal makes a lot of sense, and no sense all at the same time. Here’s the breakdown:
This Deal Makes Sense
Reebok has targeted the NHL as an area of growth for the company. They sponsor the game’s biggest star in Sidney Crosby, but also sponsor 11 other players including Matt Duchene, Ryan Miller, Victor Hedman, and Roberto Loungo. This is a great stable of talent at all positions, including the league’s current big stars and some of the league’s future stars.
Signing McDavid is a future play that ensures that Reebok will be able to capture the buzz when McDavid is at the NHL Draft Combine, the NHL Draft, his first NHL training camp, and his rookie season. The NHL media will be all over him, and in turn, all over McDavid will be a Reebok logo. With the McDavid signing and Sidney Crosby, Reebok could potentially have the two biggest stars in the game (assuming McDavid lives up to the hype) repping their brand.
McDavid makes more sense to Reebok when you look at where he is right now in his career: happily riding the bus in the Canadian Hockey League where no lockouts occur and the games always start on time. At the time of this deal, Reebok didn’t have NHLers to promote their gear, because NHLers didn’t exist. They weren’t playing. This deal, at the time, gave Reebok something it didn’t have: a player playing. Now with the NHL entering its third week, this seems unimportant. However, if the NHL hadn’t come back, it isn’t hard to imagine a small campaign anchored around McDavid.
Speaking of the advantages of having a Junior Hockey star. This coming summer, Connor McDavid will in all likelihood be invited to the Hockey Canada Summer Evaluation Camp. From there, he will play in the Canada versus Russia Super Series, and if the legend extrapolates correctly, he will be traveling to Sweden for the 2014 World Junior Hockey Championships. The world of National Junior hockey is dominated by Nike. They sponsor Team Canada, Russia, and the United States. Having Connor McDavid provides Reebok a means to sell product and tie its brand to a tournament that is growing in importance from a marketing perspective.
The final key piece of the McDavid signing is Crosby. Crosby was front and center during the lockout, Crosby has had some public comments about concussions, and Crosby has missed significant time with injury. All of these things carry some risk for Reebok. Do they want their star player being subconsciously associated with the lockout in the eyes of the buying public? Do they want their helmets being called into question the next time Crosby bumps his head? And do they want their brand tied to a player who has had some injury trouble as of late? McDavid at the very least provides some insurance as another star they can promote if Crosby becomes too controversial.
However, with all of these positives to having McDavid signed, there are many risk factors as well:
This Deal Makes No Sense
Signing a 15-year old hockey superstar has unbelievable risk. For a brand like Reebok to tie its brand to this kid opens them up to potential pitfalls that other athletes do not expose them to. First, and the obvious, is that he is too young. NHL scouts have a hard time predicting the future with junior aged players, and often get it wrong. Now, McDavid is by all accounts the definition of a sure thing. At 15 he has good size, and shows great hockey potential for the future. However, to be at a level where he can be the face of the brand? 15 is too young.
Let’s use Jason Spezza as an example.
Jason Spezza played junior at age 15 where he had 71 points in his first season. The hockey world labeled him as “The Next One,” and at the time he was the third 16-year old to make the Canadian World Junior Team. The comparisons to Connor McDavid seem reasonable, and if he becomes Jason Spezza then he’d be on track to have an admirable NHL career. Nevertheless, you would not sign Spezza to be the face of your brand. Nor, would you have wanted him during his first four professional seasons where he spent the first two in the AHL, the third in between the NHL and AHL, and then the fourth scoring 55 points; hardly the stuff of legends. If Spezza is the worst case scenario for this deal, then it is a mistake. Today, Spezza is a top flight NHLer and a point per game player, but it took him four seasons to become an impact NHL player. This deal only works if McDavid is a Crosby-type player, and begins his career like a house of fire. Unbelievable pressure for the young man.
Pressure is also a huge factor here. In 2013, being an athlete in the spotlight is pressure that is beyond comprehension. There is media coverage (remember TSN’s The Crosby Show?), there is social media, there is Deadspin, and three years from now when he is draft eligible, who knows what will exist to stalk this young man. For a 15-year old to deal with this will take a special individual. And what if he can’t deal with it? Lots of athletes have cracked under the pressure of superstardom. Drugs, hangers on, sex, crazy family, and everything else all place him at risk of not living up to expectations of him becoming the next great hockey star. All of these things place this deal in the crosshairs. There are no current signs that he is likely to be effected by these risks, and by all accounts he is in a great situation. Nevertheless, if McDavid falls into any of these vices, the deal is ruined. Nobody wants to buy skates from a broken star.
The final reason that this deal makes no sense is that it didn’t need to happen. There are two brands that have the financial resources and interest in hockey to make this happen: Reebok and Nike. Was Nike banging on this kid’s door? Was anyone banging on the door? Was Reebok at risk of losing this kid to the competition? Could they have waited until he was 17 like they did with Crosby? Or maybe wait until he was drafted and made the NHL so they ensure they do not have a Spezza situation? This deal did not need to happen, and it exposed Reebok and McDavid to more risk than necessary.
There are positives to this deal for Reebok and negatives. Like most endorsement deals, we will have to wait until the deal is near the end of its lifespan before we can judge its impact on Reebok’s hockey division. If you have thoughts on the Connor McDavid deal, please share them with us via Twitter and LinkedIn.
Jeffrey Lush is a weekly blog contributor to Sports Business Canada