If there is any doubt that Texas Rangers pitcher Nolan Ryan is bigger than life, the scene outside of Arlington Stadium should settle the matter: A monstrous color photograph of Ryan, symbolically flanked by the Texas flag and the American flag, hangs over the main gate. The looming 20- by 24-foot Ryan monument is completely fitting. To the Texas Rangers—and to the legions of companies that traffic in Nolan Ryan merchandise—there is no better sell than a living legend.
Now in his third season with the Rangers, Nolan Ryan has become one of baseball’s most marketable players in terms of T-shirt, poster, and other souvenir sales. Thanks to a strong national demand, the 44-year-old pitcher has reached the exalted status of such hot sellers as slugger Jose Canseco of the Oakland Athletics and outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., of the Seattle Mariners. In some instances, Ryan has even surpassed injured pop-culture icon and perennial big-seller Bo Jackson. At Arlington Stadium, Ryan paraphernalia dominates the Dugout, the souvenir shop where the only other Rangers players who merit their own T-shirts are outfielder Ruben Sierra and second-baseman Julio Franco. ARA Services, the stadium’s concessionaire, estimates that Ryan accounts for nearly one third of all Ranger souvenir sales. The best-selling item is a $2 pack of Nolan Ryan trading cards.
That it has taken Ryan 25 seasons in the major leagues to reach true celebrity is a side effect of Ryan’s straight-arrow image, says his agent, Matt Merola. “Take a guy like Brian Bosworth,” he says, referring to the renegade former University of Oklahoma football star known as the Boz. “He paints his hair yellow, gets a big pro football contract, does a commercial, and becomes an actor.” By contrast, Ryan’s quiet, humble demeanor was mostly just plain boring—until a few years ago, when he began his assault on major league baseball’s record books. Along with the records came Ryan’s most salable quality: his status as a living legend. He passed five thousand strikeouts in 1989. He threw his 6th no-hitter and won his 300th game a year later. No-hitter number seven (and nearly number eight) came this season. Ryan has become a legend, even if he’s a relatively boring one. Better yet, from a merchandising standpoint, he’s still playing baseball.
Merchandisers swooped in on the chance to capitalize on Ryan, who holds or shares 48 baseball records. Salem Sportswear in Salem, New Hampshire, one of the biggest Major League Baseball T-shirt licensees, makes twelve Nolan Ryan T-shirts—a 300th-win shirt, a 7th no-hitter shirt, and so on. If Ryan, Salem’s eighth-best seller, hurls another no-hitter tomorrow, the commemorative shirt will hit the stores in 48 hours. “Every time he sets a new record,” says Salem’s Ann Behm, “we put out a new shirt.” At Starline, a company in East Elmhurst, New York, that bills itself as the world’s largest poster manufacturer, Ryan posters are right up there with those of such baseball bad boys as Darryl Strawberry and Rickey Henderson. Starline also makes a Ryan jigsaw puzzle and has a $90 Nolan Ryan jacket, complete with Ryan’s picture on the back, in the works.
Ryan is a meal ticket for another company, Chicagoland Processing, a producer of commemorative coins. Chicagoland minted three Nolan Ryan silver coins—one for the 300th win, one for the 5,000th strikeout, and one for the 7th no-hitter. It promptly sold out 15,000 of each coin at $29.95 apiece for a gross of more than $1.3 million. At Fotoball USA, a San Diego company that hawks baseballs with photos of players, Ryan has knocked off Canseco and Jackson as the top seller. The firm, which has made four Ryan models, will sell 10,000 Ryan Fotoballs (retail: $15) this year. Part-owner Leon Krajian wants Ryan to set more records. Every new one, he says, “gives us the opportunity to go back to the well one more time.”
Other companies that aren’t even in the sports merchandising business are eager to dip into the well for the first time. Pacific Trading Cards, a Washington-based card company that sells I Love Lucy and Andy Griffith cards, printed a card set featuring Ryan in 110 poses. It sold out. The Summit Group, the Fort Worth ad agency and book publisher that put Ryan in BizMart ads, is about to issue a 224-page pictorial Ryan history for $39.95 (add $100 for Nolan’s autograph). All-Star Time is a Houston firm whose normal business is peddling watches with corporate logos. In 1989 the company put out a $299.95 gold-plated watch in honor of Ryan’s 5,000th strikeout. All-Star Time has sold five thousand of them, and collectors, the driving force behind the bull market in Ryan memorabilia, have prodded the price of the watch to $1,500.
Ironically, Ryan doesn’t make much from any of these deals. He gets squeezed out partly because he is a member of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Although a player can directly negotiate with a company for some one-shot deals—the Nolan Ryan watch, for example—most companies pay fees to the players’ association for the right to use players on their posters or shirts. The association then splits the income among the players. Likewise, the Rangers don’t directly profit from the merchandising of their most prized possession. Under a league-wide agreement, the 26 major league teams share merchandising royalties equally. With or without Ryan, the Rangers will get about $2 million this year, the same as every other club.
The team, though, makes other money off Ryan. Historically, whenever Ryan pitches at home, he pulls in some eight thousand more fans a game. In parking, gate, and concession money, those extra fans spend an estimated $100,000 per Ryan start.