On Feb. 1, Jeremy Lin was barely a blip on the NBA's radar screen.
One week later, he was imploding radar screens nationwide, running rampant on Google searches and trending on Twitter.
During the first 11 starts of his career, Lin has averaged more than 23 points and nine assists per game -- the best such showing in the NBA since 1976-77 -- and the New York Knicks were 8-3 heading into the 2012 All-Star Game break. Even with a poor showing in a loss against the Miami Heat on Feb. 23 -- 1 for 11 from the field, eight points, three assists and eight turnovers -- Lin was being anointed as the real deal on the basketball court.
The NBA even saw fit to include Lin in its All-Star festivities, adding him to the Rising Stars game that features the league's top rookies and sophomores.
But is he the real deal for marketers? The early prognosis: He could be, but let's wait and see.
"Marketers have to be very careful without jumping on board too quickly," said Robert Tuchman, president of Skylight Entertainment, a New York-based sports and entertainment marketing and sponsorship firm. "I mean it’s only been a handful of games that this kid has played. If he continues to do what he has been doing over the course of the next couple of months, then I would be the first in line to have him represent my brand."
Lin's agent, Robert Montgomery, has taken what industry analysts say is the appropriate measure. He has chosen to listen to the plethora of marketing opportunities being tossed at Lin but wait until later in the season, and more likely after seeing how the entire season plays out, to make any commitments.
According to sports marketing observers, Lin could easily go from zero dollars in endorsement income to upward of $10 million this year, especially given his unique biography: Harvard graduate, undrafted and the first American-born NBA player of Chinese or Taiwanese descent. He already has a deal with Nike that has expanded to a signature shoe, but should be a prime global prospect in such categories as sports/energy drinks, electronics, technology, clothing and, given his degree in economics, credit cards and financial services.
"Jeremy Lin is an incredible story and is taking the NBA, the Knicks and all fans by storm," said David Schwab, who heads up marketing firm Octagon’s celebrity acquisition and activation division, First Call, which assists brands, their agencies and nonprofit organizations by assessing the business value of celebrities, negotiating partnerships and activating each program. "We live in a 'now world,' so brands must look for programs and celebrities who can create awareness and buzz for them."
However, as Schwab offers, "For brands looking at [multi-year] programs, it's worth having a conversation. But [they should] also watch how the season unfolds."
There have been previous examples — though few and far between — to compare to the meteoric rise of Lin. In 1981, rookie Fernando Valenzuela was named as a replacement opening-day starter for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched a 2-0 shutout against the Houston Astros and started the season 8-0 with five shutouts and an ERA of 0.50. Valenzuela gave birth to "Fernandomania" and went on to become the only player in Major League Baseball history to win the Rookie of the Year award and the Cy Young Award in the same season.
Five years earlier, Mark Fidrych earned a spot as a rookie with the Detroit Tigers in 1976 as a non-roster invitee out of spring training. In his first start in mid-May, he threw six no-hit innings and finished with a two-hit, 2-1 win. That season, he was named the starting pitcher for the American League in the All-Star Game, went on to win 19 games, led the league with a 2.34 ERA and 24 complete games (24), won the AL Rookie of the Year Award and finished second in voting for the Cy Young Award.
In 1970, Vida Blue spent the season in the minor leagues before being called up in September by the Oakland A's. In two starts, he pitched a 3-0, one-hitter against the Kansas City Royals, then a 6-0 no-hitter against the Minnesota Twins. In 1971, Blue had a 24-8 record, was the starting AL pitcher n the 1971 All-Star Game, and won both the Cy Young and MVP awards.
A bit more recently, according to Sue Rodin, president of marketing firm Stars & Strategies, N.Y., and founder of Women in Sports and Events, was the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was held in the U.S. "[Led by Mia Hamm,] the U.S. national team’s momentum began to build, they became a media frenzy and cultural phenomenon – it was a bit like Beatlemania that summer. [After winning the World Cup] the players were all wanted by everyone for appearances, you name it. It was," said Rodin, "wild."
What could be in store for Jeremy Lin is a solid career in the NBA, a strong position as a marketing spokesman and, eventually, a leader in business. However, there are lessons to learn from the likes of Mark Fidrych, whose injury-plagued MLB career lasted just five seasons and who won only 10 more games after his 19-9 rookie season.
"[Lin] presents global opportunity on the scale of Yao Ming with the added benefit of playing in New York and being an underdog story, which brands love to get behind," said Tuchman. "He could become the highest paid endorser in the NBA. He could also become a one-hit wonder story. I wouldn't be shooting commercials with him yet, but I certainly would be knocking on his door right now and feeling it out."