Who's on first? In the business world, a better question is who gets to make first base — and produce the baseballs, bats, caps and other equipment prominently on display during major league games.
As it begins a new season, Major League Baseball has a deep roster and a waiting bullpen of suppliers promoting their brands by visibly associating with the sport. MLB grants licenses to Under Armour Inc., Nike Inc., Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. and other companies for products ranging from uniforms and cleats to sunglasses.
Rawlings makes the baseballs used in games, Majestic Athletic makes the uniforms, New Era Cap Co. makes the caps and Schutt Sports makes the bases. Under Armour produces some of the cleats, compression sleeves and batting gloves. The Baltimore-based company also makes a share of the catchers' gear — an important marketing tool because catchers and their equipment brands so often appear on camera during broadcasts.
It's a competitive marketplace, and companies including Under Armour, which also designs a line of MLB fan gear in team colors and logos, say they are looking for more opportunities to get into the game.
"Team sports are a pillar of our business, and baseball is an important player," said Peter Murray, vice president of global brand and sports marketing at Under Armour, which signed one of the sport's marquee players, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, to an endorsement deal in 2011 when he was still in the minor leagues.
"We are always looking to explore a deeper relationship with the league and new rights opportunities," Murray said.
Companies can get their logos on the field in a number of ways — by supplying equipment to Major League Baseball as licensees or approved vendors and by signing endorsement deals with players. Licensing deals enable the companies to put the MLB logo on fan gear they make. Consumer spending on baseball equipment and retail sales of MLB-branded apparel represents hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
"These are obviously very significant deals; MLB is a licensing powerhouse," said Martin Brochstein, senior vice president at the International Licensing Industry Merchandisers' Association.
Nike, which makes baseball undershirts with the trademark swoosh visible at the neckline, Majestic Athletic and other suppliers last year extended their partnership deals through 2019. Major League Baseball divides its exclusive and shared licenses among many corporate players, and marketing experts say that doing so leads to more product choices and maximizes profits.
"In professional sports, the way the pendulum is swinging is to involve as many companies as they can," said Scott Sillcox, a Toronto-area sports licensing consultant.
Founded 20 years ago, Under Armour is not yet a heavy hitter in MLB stadiums but has secured an important presence, analysts say, by signing the right players, including Harper and two top catchers.
"Baseball is certainly a valuable sport for a brand like Under Armour," said Matt Saler director of sports marketing for Baltimore advertising and marketing firm IMRE. "It only relates to a few product lines — they have an apparel line associated with fans of each team, and there are cleats. But it's still America's pastime, and the niche they've carved out for themselves — partnerships with select elite athletes — is a smart space to play in."
Because center-field cameras point directly at the catcher, those players and the brands they sport get lots of air time. Under Armour's best-known endorsements include catchers Matt Wieters of the Orioles and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants. Both players sport chest protectors featuring the company's interlocking "UA" logo on the front.
The resulting exposure for Under Armour "is invaluable and it's done in such a natural, authentic way," Saler said. "It's not on a sign that is rotating every 15 minutes and you think 'Sponsor!'"
An Under Armour spokeswoman that the company signed Wieters and Posey as part of a broad strategy. Under Armour does not have to pay MLB for permission to have Wieters or Posey wear its gear.
The league also allows players to choose their own catchers' equipment, brand of bat or batting glove — provided they meet specifications — without the manufacturer being assessed a fee. Louisville Slugger does pay MLB to promote itself as "the official bat of Major League Baseball."
Similarly, Under Armour pays to be a licensed provider of cleats and compression sleeves. The licenses allow the company to market those products using MLB marks and logos. Terms of the license agreements have not been released.
Under Armour also pays to be a local sponsor of the Orioles and Chicago Cubs, allowing it to have signs at the teams' stadiums. Chicago is home to the Baltimore company's largest retail store and hosts an annual Under Armour-sponsored game for top high-school baseball players.
But unlike rival Nike, Under Armour is not a leaguewide sponsor.
Rather, Under Armour has focused on "big star athletes from multiple leagues," said T.J. Brightman, president of A. Bright Idea, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Bel Air and Sonoma, Calif.
"When it comes to Major League Baseball. there has been a similar approach locking down stars like Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw or Dee Gordon," said Brightman, a former Orioles sales and sponsorship executive. Kershaw pitches for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Gordon is an infielder for the Miami Marlins.
Major League Baseball is attractive to apparel and equipment makers because attendance has been inching upward, and local television ratings have been healthy in prime time. Regular-season attendance topped 73 million in 2015.
Sponsors develop strategies to best tap into fans' interest.
One of Under Armour's first big baseball purchases was a sign along the ivy-covered wall at Chicago's Wrigley Field.
New Era, the cap maker, tends to target stadium dugouts — particularly along their back walls — to display its logo.
"We targeted the dugouts because that is a place that gets a lot of TV coverage," said Nicole Jeziorowski, the company's baseball marketing manager. And because it presents opportunities for "getting head shots of the players," she said.