Mo'ne Davis is already the most famous player in Little League World Series history, save perhaps Danny Almonte. If she wins tonight, she'll have to answer a question Almonte was never asked: Cash in now?
Davis, the 13-year-old pitcher for Philadelphia's entry in Williamsport, has been nearly Tebowed by ESPN, with sit-down interviews and 'round-the-clock promotion for tonight's prime-time game against the Las Vegas all-stars. She's on one of the covers of the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, the first Little Leaguer ever to show up there.
Davis doesn't get a dime from Disney for bringing in viewers or from SI for selling magazines or, for that matter, from any news organization for being the only feel-good story of a summer of bad news. Right now she could get paid to pitch something other than a baseball. "She'd be an incredible endorser right now," says sports marketing consultant Patrick McGee. But there lies the dilemma for Mo'ne: There would be long-term consequences if she made any attempt to trade off her present celebrity.
McGee knows the tricky decision she's facing. He's been in the business a long time. He worked endorsement deals for Michael Vick, Zina Garrison, and John Elway while at sports marketing giant Advantage International and its later incarnation, Octagon. He now has his own firm, ProVentures, based in Alexandria, Va.
McGee says there are too many factors to put a precise figure on Davis's current value as an endorser. She's already good for "cereal box" deals: one-off arrangements that pay "$50,000 to $100,000," per. But she's also newly famous, with no guaranteed or even obvious next step as an athlete or a celebrity. Marketers are willing to take some risks. McGee was putting deals together for Michael Phelps before he'd won his first Olympic medal, and that worked out swimmingly for all concerned. But not every bet pays off on the back end. Poor Ty Tryon signed seven figures' worth of deals with Callaway, Target, and Mossimo around the time he first got his driver's license, but he never left as big a ballmark as he was supposed to on the PGA Tour.
Sponsors would probably want someone with better odds of being in the public eye for the long haul.
"You typically need a platform, something to continue promoting, to get the long-term deal," McGee says. "She wont have that after the Little League World Series. A sponsor would have to pay to keep her name and face out there. If you thought that she would be the next big thing in golf or tennis, now you're talking a long-term deal, real money. She doesn't have that."
But as overnight sensations go, Davis is a special case. Along with her typical endorser attributes—great smile, coziness with the camera, and, as McGee points out, "that great name"—there are pioneering qualities to Davis's escapades: Black kids stopped playing baseball a long time ago. And girls never really played at all. Yet here's a black girl dominating kids in baseball, while the world's biggest sports network is making people watch.
McGee sees Davis's potential as a trailblazer in sports marketing, too. There's precious little work and even less money for female athletes in professional team sports; the only realistic carrot is a college scholarship.
Hence the dilemma for Davis and her family: While this could well be the pinnacle of her sporting career, earnings-wise, should she exploit her (likely fleeting) moment as the most marketable female athlete in the country, she would risk forfeiting a chance at a free baseball ride in college. In fact, if she so much as shows up on a cereal box in a baseball uniform, she could get thrown out of the amateur game for good.
The athletic code used by Pennsylvania schools holds that she would lose her amateur status if she "receives compensation ... related to his/her athletic ability, performance, participation, or services."
NCAA rules require amateur status, too. Asked about the Davis matter, an NCAA compliance officer at a Big Ten school said that while every case is different, the standard guideline is that if you accept anything over the "actual and necessary" expenses related to participation in a sport, you are a professional. And while Davis could present an unprecedented situation, he said, every athlete he's ever seen on a cereal box is, from a compliance perspective, a pro.
The most famous case of an athlete losing eligibility for taking sponsors' money is Jeremy Bloom. He was simultaneously a world-class moguls skier as well as a decent college football player for Colorado. Skiing paid; football didn't. The NCAA told Bloom in 2004 that if he took a dime from sponsors for his fame on the slopes, he'd be done on the gridiron. He sued the NCAA, but was ultimately ruled ineligible and didn't play college football again after his sophomore year.
Bloom would have been able to play college football if he'd been a pro baseball player and not a pro skier. Among its many hypocrisies, at that time the NCAA had an exemption in which athletes who get drafted by a Major League Baseball club out of high school could sign with an agent and remain eligible for other sports. (Hence 28-year-old Heisman winner Chris Weinke.)
That exemption was baseball-only, however. The NCAA has changed its bylaws some, and now you can be a professional in one sport and compete in college in another. But the NCAA holds the line against profiting from a sport you compete in as a nominal amateur. Olympic gold medalist Missy Franklin had to forgo sponsorship dollars by the millions to keep swimming for her school. So Davis, if she took any sponsorship money, would likely be able to play college softball or basketball—her better sport, supposedly—but not the sport in which she made her name.
"The rules are changing fast, but they're archaic," says McGee, citing the recent verdict in the O'Bannon lawsuit. "But this could be a great test case. I'll be watching closely."
While it'll take time to learn if and what Mo'ne ever gets paid, we can be certain that people are making money off her name and deeds at this very moment. One example: Among many Davis-related Wares now available on eBay, there's an auction for a ball signed by Mo'ne scheduled to end around the same time as her game tonight. As of this afternoon, bidding had reached over $500.