The Yankee Brand Will Win

For a few minutes, forget the baseball portion of the argument. Take a step back and look at the Derek Jeter contract negotiations from a fresh perspective. Put your emotions on the shelf and think like a businessman.

Here’s the thing. The Yankee/Derek Jeter mini-feud and media fall-out are all about branding. It’s the Jeter brand vs. the Yankee brand and who needs who more; same as any business partnership or deal. If we think about the situation this way, it’s obvious that the Yankees hold all the cards, and here’s why: The Yankee brand is entrenched. The Yankee brand transcends any individual player, coach, manager, GM, and maybe even any owner. The Yankee brand will always survive. Is the same true for Jeter?

Here’s what we know so far. The Yankees have offered Jeter $15 million a year for three years. We do not know of any official Jeter proposal, but rumor has it that he wants somewhere in the range of 20-23 million a year for five or six years. Again, we don’t know the specific Jeter demands, but he hasn’t yet accepted the Yankees’ offer. This alone tells us he at least wants more than what is on the table. As of this writing, the Yankees claim that the original offer has not been adjusted. In fact, Jeter has been encouraged by Brian Cashman to put himself on the market and see if he can find a better deal; a challenge the Yankees feel comfortable with.

Here is where things get interesting. Here is where these negotiations begin to transcend baseball. This is where we find out about who has more leverage and who has the stronger brand. If not Jeter directly, Jeter’s “people” want fans to be emotional and express outrage at the Yankees. They want the Yankees to feel the pressure of an angry electorate and give in to The Captain’s demands. This was the strategy when Jeter’s agent called the Yankees’ actions “baffling.” Jeter’s people see an advantage in having these negotiations played out publicly through the media. However, this isn’t an election, and at the end of the day, the Yankees hold all the cards.

Ask yourself this: From a marketing perspective, who is Derek Jeter without the Yankees? What does Jeter represent without being attached to the Yankee name? As a player, he would still be a Hall of Famer, and he might have even won a World Series or two had he played for a different team his entire career. But would he really be regarded in the same way? Would he still be Captain Clutch? Would he still earn the same endorsements? These are tough questions to ask indeed, especially for Yankee fans, myself included. Hands down, he is one of my three favorite Yankees of all time along with Don Mattingly and Bernie Williams. No athlete with his type of success or fame has carried himself in a classier or more professional manner. However, realistically, and in the minds of Yankee management, Jeter wouldn’t be close to who he is without the Yankees. In a lot of ways, Jeter is only branded the way he is because he is a New York Yankee.

“The Yankee Way” is something the Yankees consistently promote. Though overused at times, in the minds of Yankee fans, it has come to represent success, class, discipline, and professionalism. And these traits have come to define Derek Jeter. Yet would another fan base look at him this way? Is he the same without the pinstripes?

I know this sounds harsh. I know this sounds unfair. However, this is the way business is done in the real world. For any franchise to be successful on and off the field, emotions and sentimentality have to be checked at the door. For any organization to have a strong brand no player can be bigger than the organization, regardless of how great or loved that player might be. Just think of the New England Patriots in the NFL.

Now, I don’t believe the Yankees handled this as well as they could have. Nothing should have been said to the media. The top dogs in Yankee management should have met in private, decided on a strategy, and kept their mouths shut. They overreacted to comments made by Jeter’s people and got fooled into thinking there was some kind of “media war” to be won. Jeter’s people dangled the bait in front of the Yankees, and the Yankees swallowed it whole. And please Yankees, spare us the talk about budgets and discipline with money. Even if the budget is an issue, to now draw a line in the sand with arguably the most popular Yankee of all time, at least publicly, is silly and disrespectful to your fans.

I believe Derek Jeter will be a Yankee next year. That’s not going out on a limb, but some actually believe there are other options. Nobody is going to pay Jeter more than what the Yankees offered. Maybe the Yanks will up the offer slightly, but it won’t be by much. Jeter’s people know this, and turning this into a public spectacle by challenging the Yankees is a complete PR ploy. It’s their best shot, because in the end, the Yankee brand will always win.

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