By: Ryan Carwile
When you think of Bryce Harper, what is the first thing that comes to mind? Baseball player? 2010 number one overall pick? Washington Nationals right fielder? 2015 National League MVP? I can bet that one word that didn’t come to mind was brand, however, the word brand might be the most important descriptor of Bryce Harper.
A brand is “the name given to a product or service from a specific source.” The creation of a brand is accomplished through branding, which is “the marketing practice of creating a name, symbol, or design that identifies and differentiates a product from other products.” An emerging phenomenon in sports is athletes’ branding themselves in order to commodify their likeness. This phenomenon has led to the value of athletes’ exploding to astronomical levels due to athletes’ ability to brand themselves and sell this brand to companies, leading to lucrative endorsement deals for athletes’. Commodification is a common practice for athletes’ attempting to further their brand and is accomplished using trademarks to secure anything that the players determine has value, turning it into a commodity, and selling it for profit and/or to further their brand. Bryce Harper is one of many athletes’ to practice commodification as a means to further their brand and thus increase the value of their personal brand as well as their earning potential.
Commodification is understood as “valuing things not for their utility (use value) but for their power to impress others (sign value) or for their resale possibilities (exchange value).” The process of commodification involves transforming goods, services, ideas, or people into commodities. A commodity is understood as “something that is bought and sold, or exchanged, in a market.” The process of transforming something into a commodity involves meeting certain criteria that characterize commodities.
In order for something to be considered a commodity it has to meet certain characteristics. First, the commodity must “have value, an exchange value and a price, which leads to people trying to economize its use.” Second, the commodity must “have a use value driven by its ability to satisfy some human need, want, physical, or ideal leading the object to be useful to others.” Third, the commodity must “have an exchange value that can be traded for other commodities, giving the owner the benefit of others’ labor.” Lastly, the commodity must have a price which is the “monetary expression of exchange-value.” Once a good, service, idea, or person can be identified as a commodity, it is possible to trade this commodity for a variety of things in return.
There are also several ways in which commodification occurs that all stem from the ways in which commodities can be traded. First is M-C, this is understood as “an act of purchase in which money is changed into a commodity.” Second is C-M, which is an “act of sale in which a commodity is sold for money.” Third is M-M’, which is “when a sum of money is lent out at interest to obtain more money.” Fourth is C-C’, also called “countertrade where a commodity is traded directly for another commodity.” Fifth is C-M-C’ where “a commodity is sold for money that is used to buy another commodity.” Sixth is M-C-M’ where “money is used to buy a commodity which is resold to obtain a larger sum of money.” Last is M-C-P-C’-M’, which is where “money buys means of production and labor power used in production to create a new commodity, which is sold for more money than the original outlay.” These forms of trading commodities regularly occur in the arena of sports, including athletes’ trading their own commodities in exchange for money, commodities, and labor.
“That’s A Clown Question Bro” As a Commodity
Commodification can be seen throughout the sports landscape, however, there is one example that sticks out to me above all others due to my love of DC sports. On June 12th of the 2012 season the Washington Nationals defeated the Toronto Blue Jays 4-2, however, the event that made the most news was Bryce Harper’s post-game press conference. Harper, 19 years old at the time, was asked by a Canadian reporter whether he would take advantage of the lower drinking age in Canada, despite the fact that Harper’s religion does not allow him to drink. In response Harper fired back with the phrase “That’s a clown question bro” and the public took immediate notice; it became a phenomenon with the incident being covered by various major publications, generating significant social media buzz, and inspired websites, parody accounts, memes, and merchandise related to Harper’s phrase. Harper did his best to make sure he capitalized on the popularity surrounding the incident by turning the phrase into a commodity.
He began this process by establishing value of the phrase by economizing its use. This was accomplished through Harper trademarking the phrase to give him sole ownership over its use and subsequently selling apparel with the phrase on it. The trademark explicitly stated this as its purpose, stating the phrase would be put on various apparel including “shirts, t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, pants, shorts, hats, visors, gloves, and shoes.” Once the trademark was filed, Harper’s sponsor Under Armour and the MLB produced the apparel and made them available for sale, thus economizing the use of the phrase.
The next step was to establish that the phrase had use value by showing its ability to satisfy some human need or want. The use value would be established through sales of the apparel as it would demonstrate the human need or want for items associated with the phrase. It is unknown exactly how many people bought the apparel, however, it is known that the apparel sold out and went on back order shortly after being made available to the public. The apparent popularity of this apparel shows a clear human want for the items, establishing their use value.
After establishing a use value, Harper’s next hurdle was to establish that the phrase had an exchange value that would give Harper the benefit of others’ labor. The popularity of the phrase led Under Armour and the MLB to offer their labor (and a cut of the profits) in exchange for the permission to use the phrase on their apparel. This exchange gave Harper the benefit of having Under Armour and the MLB’s labor as they produced the apparel for Harper, saving him the stress of having to produce it himself while simultaneously cashing in on the sales. The exchange between Harper and Under Armour and the MLB exhibits characteristics of both C-M and C-C trade of Harper’s commodity. The C-M, or commodity for money, trade involved Harper exchanging the rights to use his commodity with Under Armour and the MLB in exchange for a royalty received from the sale of merchandise with his phrase on it. While the C-C, or commodity for commodity, trade involved Harper trading the rights to use his commodity in exchange for free apparel from Under Armour and the MLB that they produced with his phrase on it.
The last step for Harper was to establish that his phrase had a price or a monetary expression of value. The monetary value of the phrase is unknown, as it could be used in any number of ways that cannot be measured. However, Under Armour and the MLB put a price on how much they believed the phrase to be worth when put on apparel. Under Armour produced a t-shirt with the phrase “Don’t Be A Clown Bro” and is selling it for the price of $25 a shirt. The MLB produced a Bryce Harper shirsey with the phrase “That’s A Clown Question Bro” on the front and sold it for $26.99 a shirt. Both of these companies established a monetary value for Bryce Harper’s phrase and in doing so, established that Harper’s phrase was in fact a commodity.
Bryce Harper commodified his saying “That’s a clown question bro” by transforming it into a commodity and trading that commodity for personal profit. Harper is not the only one to do this, however, as many athletes utilize trademarking to secure a commodity that they use to make money. This trend in athletes’ commodifying their brand stems from increasing commodification of sports, understanding of athletes’ unsuccessful careers after their playing days are over, increasing importance of personal branding.
Athletes’ increasing commodification of their personal brands is a direct symptom of the increasing commodification of sport overall. The value of sports franchises is skyrocketing due to increased revenue streams fueled by broadcasting revenue and increased advertising revenue. This has a direct effect on athletes’ as it makes them more visible than ever before, making their personal brand more valuable to companies interested in endorsing them.
Another reason athletes’ are pushing to brand themselves is the growing awareness of athletes’ failure to translate athletic success to success outside of the sporting realm. The story of the successful athlete going bankrupt within years of retirement is all too common. After athletes’ retire they no longer have the stream of revenue they once had, leading them to burn through their money at a fast pace and having nothing to fall back or any means to make more money. Personal branding can help players make more money throughout their careers as well as help them continue to make money after they retire. This explains why Bryce Harper signed a lucrative endorsement deal with Under Armour early in his career and continues to look for endorsement opportunities to increase his earning potential. This illustrates the benefits of athletes’ commodifying their personal brands and explains why it is occurring at increasing rates.
This trend also reflects an overall societal trend in which personal branding is becoming an important tool for those thinking of joining the corporate ranks and getting a job. With the job market being more competitive than ever, it is important for people to build a personal brand to help themselves stand out. Creating a personal brand turns a person into a commodity in that the person can sell themselves to companies, exchanging what they bring to the table for a salary.
The use of commodification by athletes’ to help advance their brand and profit from it is obvious so when you ask me, how do athletes’ commodify their personal brand? I only have one thing to say to you, “That’s a clown question bro”.