Sure, it helps to be the best player on Earth. But it took more than on-ice talent to turn Sidney Crosby into hockey's most marketable player.

Sidney Crosby was only five years old when he posed for the photograph that would become Tim Hortons’ most powerful marketing tool. He was three-foot-11 and 54 pounds, and he wore big blue-and-red gloves, holding them close together as he gripped a wooden stick. The company’s name was written across the chest of his yellow hockey sweater. The photo was printed on a novelty card Crosby received for participating in the Timbits minor-hockey program. He gave it to his uncle, Rob Forbes, as a gift.

A few years later, Forbes showed the card to a group of Tim Hortons executives. At the time, he was in charge of the company’s regional marketing in Atlantic Canada. Using the card as a prop, Forbes told the gathered executives that one day a young player from the Timbits program — a player just like the boy in the picture — would grow up to play in the NHL. That player would create a unique marketing opportunity: a direct link between the company’s grassroots initiatives and NHL stardom.

Forbes didn’t assume it would literally be the kid on the card who grew into the best and most influential hockey player of a generation. The photo was meant to stand in for any and every Timbits player. It was meant to stand in for all the photos just like it that live on mantels and in trophy cases and albums in homes across Canada. Photos that are familiar and nostalgic — and in Crosby’s case, evidence of a childhood dream come true.

Tim Hortons has since built an entire marketing platform around the image of the five-year-old Timbit who grew up to become a legend. And the kid on the card has built a marketing empire on the image of him as the boy next door who made good. Crosby is the most sought after name in hockey, and other brands have lined up to work with him. But after more than a dozen years in the spotlight, the public still knows very little about his identity beyond the rink. We know he’s obsessed with the game. We know he’s polite off the ice and capable of flashing a mean streak on it. We know he’s deeply connected to Cole Harbour, N.S. — his hometown — and to his family. We know he enjoys fishing, studies World War II history, is a Blue Jays fan, and that he’s relatively frugal with his fortune.

While other sports superstars lead outsized, lavish lives, Crosby seems content to stay out of the glare of modern celebrity. He shares little of his political beliefs or his stance on social issues. There are no Instagram posts of flashy cars or swanky holidays, and no leaked photos from wild weekends. Any romantic links remain in the vault. Crosby is the anti-celebrity, the superstar we’ll never know the way we seem to know most other superstars. And that hasn’t lessened his popularity one bit: Twelve seasons into his NHL career, Crosby’s sweater is still the league’s best-seller, and his $4.5 million in annual sponsorship revenue, as reported by Forbes, outstrips any other player in the game.

Being the best hockey player in the world certainly helps. But Crosby’s sustained popularity is also a result of his carefully curated image, one that never allows his personality to distract from his excellence when playing. You can be sure Crosby will give his all on the ice and will never offend you off of it. Hockey-loving kids can fall asleep dreaming of one day being just like No. 87, and nothing will disturb their knowledge that he was once just like them. Crosby and his team have been carefully maintaining that image ever since he emerged as a peewee superstar — since “The Kid” was just a kid. And the blueprint they created in building the Crosby marketing machine is the one now being followed by the game’s next generation of mega-stars.

A Boy Among Men
Crosby was 16 when he inked his first deal to represent Gatorade. He earned twice what Pepsi Co. paid established NHLers José Théodore and Todd Bertuzzi combined.

Hockey super-agent Pat Brisson was the first to spot Crosby’s incredible marketing potential—shortly after registering his generational talent on the ice. After watching him play in a tournament when he was just 13 years old, Brisson set out to secure Crosby as his youngest client. More than many other agents, who are first and foremost experts on the ins and outs of NHL contracts, Brisson also had a keen vision for brand building. And once he’d signed the phenom at 14, no one was getting to Crosby without going through him.

According to Brisson, from the very beginning Crosby’s image was the result of carefully selected relationships. Brisson knew corporations would be lining up to work with the kid, but Crosby had one job that had to come before everything else: playing hockey. So the agent guarded his prized client like an overprotective parent.

“Twelve seasons into his NHL career, Crosby’s sweater is still the league’s best-seller, and his $4.5 million in annual sponsorship revenue outstrips any other player in the game.”

When Jeff Jackett set out to convince his bosses at Pepsi Co. that they should tap a 16-year-old Canadian Hockey League rookie to be the face of the Gatorade brand in Canada, it was 2003 and no one else in the room had heard Crosby’s name before. Even so, Jackett had to crisscross the country trying to get an audience with Brisson, and make several presentations to the agent and Crosby’s father, Troy, before he ever met the kid. In those pitches, Jackett explained Pepsi’s plan to build entire campaigns around Crosby, and even develop a new flavour that could bear his name. Crosby wasn’t going to be just another face, he was going to be the face of Gatorade’s hockey presence for years to come.

That was all pretty persuasive, but what won Crosby over, according to both Jackett and Brisson, was that he actually drank Gatorade. Simple as that. Crosby’s arrangement with Pespi Co. — $300,000 CDN over three years — was the first large contract he signed (he’d previously inked a smaller deal agreeing to use Sherwood sticks). It seems like a steal in hindsight, but at the time it was twice what Gatorade was paying the two other hockey players on its roster — José Théodore and Todd Bertuzzi — combined. Over the course of that first contract, Gatorade’s brand increased by 60 per cent in Canada with Crosby as its face, Jackett says.

Other partnerships followed. Crosby signed a five-year deal with Reebok during his second season in the QMJHL that was worth more than $1 million — the biggest endorsement in hockey at the time, according to Brisson. In 2006, his sophomore year in the NHL, he made his uncle’s prediction a reality by adding Tim Hortons to his portfolio.

Crosby still represents those same three companies (Reebok having since been purchased by Adidas). And while he’s lent his likeness to brands like Telus, Bell, Dempster’s, Kellogg’s, Hallmark and GoPro in smaller campaigns over the years, and signed a five-year deal with Sport Chek in 2010, his relationships with Tim Hortons, Pepsi Co. and Adidas are the long-term foundation of his lucrative marketing strategy.

The selectivity around that core group has created a sense of exclusivity in the products Crosby lends his likeness to, which makes the endorsements he does agree to more valuable. “You never want to become a walking billboard,” Brisson says. “It was important to pick a few categories and then go from there.”

Having fewer irons in the fire has also allowed Crosby greater control of the image he presents. When Jackett first met the teenaged Rimouski Oceanic star (who was still asking Brisson for lunch money), he was struck by Crosby’s “boy next door” appeal, and if you talk to marketing experts about the Penguins captain, that phrase is almost certain to come up. That appeal may very well be one that Crosby possesses innately, but it’s also the character he’s played from his earliest days in TV commercials. The first TV spot he did for Gatorade showed him walking up to a group of kids pulling sticks to pick teams for road hockey. “I’m in,” Crosby says in the ad, tossing his stick on the pile. The message is clear: Even on the verge of superstardom, Sid was still just a kid like the rest of them. “I think Canadians really appreciate that despite tremendous success on and off the ice, [Crosby] truly will never forget where he came from,” says Tammy Sadinsky, head of marketing for Tim Hortons Canada. “He is still the young man from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, that you can see at the gym or the Tim’s drive-thru or at the grocery store.”

Crosby’s working relationship with Tim Hortons is fuelled, at least in part, by a genuine affection for the opportunities the Timbits program provided him. But his ties to the products he endorses haven’t stopped Crosby from being careful about how his corporate associations affect his personal brand. We’re unlikely to see the two-time Hart Trophy winner stuff his face with a Boston Cream donut. And while he drank Gatorade as a young athlete, he’s since asked the company to decrease the amount of sugar in its product.

Maybe because they contain some degree of real affinity, Crosby’s carefully considered partnerships have also been lasting ones. And just as the brands he associates with have remained relatively consistent, so does the image Crosby presents with each of them. He’s a man of few, carefully considered words, and his predictability works incredibly well for him and his sponsors. “He’s not a shove-it-in-your-face type guy; he’s a quiet guy,” says Brian Cooper, CEO of MKTG, an international marketing company. “He leads with a quiet demeanour — but he leads.”

“You never want to become a walking billboard. It was important to pick a few categories and then go from there.”

Adidas is banking on Crosby’s capacity to lead through his actions as it takes over as the NHL’s official uniform supplier starting next season. The apparel giant also has Connor McDavid on its roster, and it plans to present both of the faces of hockey as relentless gym rats who just happen to wear the brand while fine-tuning their super-human abilities. “When we look at Sidney, his focus is what we really like,” says Stewart Smith, vice-president of marketing for Adidas in Canada. “His focus in the rink, but also his focus in training. He’s in unbelievable shape. And through our relationship when he was with the Reebok brand, [we know] his training ethic is second to none.”

Crosby isn’t going to crack jokes or steal a scene with his charisma, but he is going to provide something consistently admirable to Canadian consumers, says Cooper. The highlights he generates on the ice are great, but companies love that Crosby won’t surprise them with news off the ice. “You’re never going to see him anywhere but the sports pages. He’s never going to get into trouble,” says Cooper. “He’s never going to be one of those guys that embarrasses the club or this country in any way.”

Still The One
Twelve seasons into his career, Crosby’s sweaters outsell all others. Adidas is banking on him to anchor its campaign as it takes over as the NHL's uniform supplier.

That squeaky-clean-yet-uber-competive image is something that young stars like McDavid and Auston Matthews are looking to emulate. While Crosby remains the leader in NHL sweater sales, Matthews is second after just one season with the Maple Leafs. Brisson also represents Toronto’s young star and he has Matthews following a similar branding plan to the one that worked so well for Crosby. Last summer, the agent declined to entertain offers from multiple corporations eager to partner with Matthews, aside from signing an equipment deal with Bauer and another with the apparel company Fanatics. That echo of Crosby’s selectivity is already bearing fruit. “If I had done three deals last summer, I’d be saying to myself, ‘What have I done?’” Brisson says. Because they waited until after his rookie season to entertain most offers, he adds, “Auston can get a lot more money.”

But regardless of what endorsements the likes of Matthews or McDavid pick up, they’re still going to lag behind Crosby — hockey’s reigning king of marketability — for the foreseeable future. And the gap may widen as Crosby seems to be starting to finally come out of his shell, on his own terms. While Brisson admits he’ll have an easier time getting his marquee client to agree to a photo shoot once he’s retired, he acknowledges that Crosby is a bit more relaxed on camera than he was when he was younger. You’re still not likely to see him ham it up like Peyton Manning has for Papa John’s and MasterCard, or ‘not tell’ fans to drink Sprite like LeBron James — but he’s at least showing flashes of his personality on screen.

Recently, Tim Hortons released a commercial in which Crosby and fellow Cole Harbour hero Nathan MacKinnon banter about hockey cards at a local franchise. In another spot, the duo surprises guests at a drive-thru as they pretend to be employees. At the start of the shoot, Crosby was nervous, surrounded by the cameras and crew and asked to interact with the customers off-script. He was concerned that he was going to screw up orders and fail to get people through the line quickly enough. But as the day went on, Crosby started to get the hang of it. He got the orders right and he kept the line moving. He became more comfortable and relaxed, joking around with MacKinnon, the staff and the customers. “[It] captured his sense of humour,” says his uncle. “These are sides of him you don’t usually get to see on the ice and in interviews.”

That afternoon at a Cole Harbour Tim Hortons, Crosby was at home in the place where his legend was born. He leaned out the window as customer after customer pulled up, only to be hammered by starstruck shock: “Sidney Crosby?

And hockey’s perfect pitchman smiled shyly as he passed them their coffee.

Photo Credits

Illustrations by Ben Kirchner; Infographic by Drew Lesiuczok