Yasiel Puig, Kevin Durant, Lindsey Vonn: The New Ratings Gods of Sports (Photos)
The Hollywood Reporter's photo portfolio also includes Yankees slugger Robinson Cano and Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III; as ratings and the price of rights soar, athletes are TV's new stars.
These stories first appeared in the Aug. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Right fielder, Los Angeles Dodgers
Yasiel Puig defines the word "phenom."
The enthusiastic rookie, who defected from Cuba with his mom in 2012 on his second attempt, has helped ignite the team from last place in the National League West to a comfortable first-place lead. Since the 22-year-old -- who signed a rich seven-year, $42 million contract -- was called up June 3 from the minors, the fleet, muscular Puig has come out swinging in baseball and pop culture, earning the league's Player of the Week honors after his first seven days in the big leagues.
The sizzling debut has propelled Dodger baseball into must-see TV again and fueled sellouts at home and on the road. (A recent walk-off victory against the New York Yankees notched KCAL 9's highest local ratings for a regular-season game since 1998.) Puig notes that Dodger Stadium -- and his downtown L.A. apartment -- are his favorite places in the city, where he frequently is spotted in his now-trademark white Rolls-Royce.
"Here, the media gets me in one spot as opposed to when I'm on the road and I'm inundated with cameras," he tells THR via an interpreter -- he's still learning English -- noting that he's now recognized nearly everywhere he goes. (Puig uses his Instagram feed to document his encounters with such athletes and entertainers as LeBron James, Snoop Dogg and Jay Z.)
Puig also is taking care of his enterprising business, signing a sunglasses deal with Italian designer Rudy Project, though he denies reports of a deal with Jay Z's Roc Nation sports management division (he's repped by Jaime Torres). As for going Hollywood, he jokes that he's open to a Puig biopic -- with one stipulation. "If anyone wants to do a movie about my life, give me a call, I'll star in it," the 6-foot-3 star says with a roaring laugh.
-- Lesley Goldberg
Robert Griffin III
Quarterback, Washington Redskins
It was clear from the start of the 2012 football season that it would be the Year of RGIII.
While at Texas' Copperas Cove High School, he was the best 400-meter hurdler in the country, so fans knew he was fast. In his final season at Baylor University -- from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in political science, having made the dean's list twice -- he set records for passing yards and passing efficiency, so it was clear he could throw.
He also won the Heisman Trophy in 2011. And while the NFL had seen "dual threat" quarterbacks -- who are dangerous whether passing the ball or running it -- it never had seen a package quite like RGIII. Almost single-handedly, the first-round draft pick transformed the Redskins from an East Coast punching bag into a legitimate contender (eventually derailed by Griffin's knee injury during a playoff loss in January).
His megawatt smile has made the 23-year-old an endorsement magnet: He has deals with Gatorade, Adidas, EA Sports and Nissan, among others, worth a combined $4 million to $6 million annually, on top of his four-year, $21 million contract. Griffin's No. 10 jersey set a single-season sales record. Basically, he is one of the most popular players in the country's most popular sport.
"Robert's intelligence, creativity and charisma create a dynamic personality that fans have fallen in love with, and his corporate partners value tremendously," says Mark Heligman, his agent at CAA. And last October, while on the campaign trail, President Obama taped an intro for a Redskins game in which he said, "It's tough to unite this city around anything -- believe me, I know … but RGIII makes it look easy."
-- Marc Bernardin
Ever since nabbing the gold medal in downhill at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver -- with almost 30 million TV viewers watching -- American skier Vonn has been bombarded with high-profile offers. Among those she nixed: reality TV shows, alcohol ads and a Playboy spread in Germany.
"That’s definitely not something I want to do," says the 5-foot-10 Vonn, who burst onto the world stage as a teenager at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where she competed in slalom and combined. Instead, the Minnesota native, now 28, has parlayed her success on the slopes into a slew of lucrative endorsement deals including Rolex, Red Bull, Head and Oakley (she reportedly is worth about $3 million).
Despite numerous offers of acting work, Vonn has kept Hollywood largely at bay due to a grueling training schedule that sees her in the gym four to six hours a day, five to six days a week.
"It’s always like a week or 10 days of shooting, and I never have that much time to give while I’m preparing for my next event," says the Law & Order junkie (her parents are lawyers).
She did, however, say yes to a guest spot as a secretary during L&O’s final season. Her star power continues to rise, thanks in part to her romance with Tiger Woods. As for the biggest perk of being one-half of a celebrity sports couple, Vonn is quick to weigh in: "It’s really cool because I know the feeling of working hard and winning, and it’s fun to watch the person whom I love do the same thing."
Vonn now has her sights set on her fourth Olympics -- next year’s hot-button Games in Sochi, Russia. Although calls for a boycott are mounting in the face of Russia’s antigay laws, Vonn is noncommittal. "I feel like every place that we go to for the Olympic Games -- like Beijing -- there’s a lot of controversy," she says. "I think that’s just part of the Games, and we’ll see what happens."
-- Tatiana Siegel
Forward, Oklahoma City Thunder
Aside from hoisting the championship trophy, few honors have eluded Durant during six years in the NBA.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star, 24, has nabbed the regular-season scoring title three times, won Olympic gold in London and memorably squared off against LeBron James' Miami Heat in the 2012 Finals (the series’ decisive game pulled in 18.4 million viewers on ABC).
In 2010, the Washington, D.C., native signed a five-year contract extension with the Thunder reportedly worth $86 million, and he’s already preparing for future negotiations: In June, Durant became the first basketball player to sign with Jay Z's agency Roc Nation Sports.
“I thought it would be cool to have a group that’s focused on helping me out and helping me grow off the court,” he tells THR, adding, “My mind-set is: Play the game the right way, you win, you show people what kind of player you are, then the endorsements or the off-the-court stuff will come.” (He now has contracts with Sprint, Gatorade, sports memorabilia company Panini, General Electric, game developer 2K Sports and Nike, with earnings adding up to an estimated $13 million a year.)
Durant singled out the star-studded Staples Center as one of his favorite places to play; it’s where he met Denzel Washington and “told him I was a big fan.” Asked if he contemplates life post-NBA, Durant says: “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about it. The years have been going past so quickly.”
-- Erik Hayden
Second baseman, New York Yankees
"I can't wait until the offseason," says Cano on a breezy summer night as the New York Yankees uncharacteristically sit close to the bottom of the American League East standings.
Of course, the smooth second baseman isn't to blame for the team's troubles -- which are compounded by the impending suspension of tarnished All-Star Alex Rodriguez (about whom Cano wouldn't comment). But when you're the next-generation face of baseball's winningest team, with 27 World Series victories to date, some of the sports-media scrutiny is bound to turn your way.
"When I first came up to the majors [in 2005], I was interested in what people in the media said," the 30-year-old says. "But you have to learn how to put it to the side."
The media attention can be hard to ignore, given that he's the best hitter on the world's most famous baseball team in one of the biggest TV markets in the U.S. (YES Network, which broadcasts the Yankees on cable and was recently valued at $3.8 billion, is the most watched regional sports network in the country.)
Cano is making $14 million a year but is projected to increase his salary into the $20 million to $25 million range when he signs a new contract this offseason, which might have been the motivation behind Cano firing agent Scott Boras and becoming one of the first big athletes to sign with Jay Z.
Asked whether he's interested in following the hip-hop mogul's lead into entertainment, Cano says, "Maybe, but right now I'm focused on baseball, which takes up a lot of time."
When he's not working, the unmarried Dominican Republic native relaxes by catching lighthearted sports flicks: Major League and Rookie of the Year are two of his favorites. He also has a soft spot for this year's 42, the story of Jackie Robinson, after whom he is named. (Cano has a young son, being raised in the Dominican Republic by the boy's mother, who also shares that name.) Says Cano, "It's important for kids to see what he went through."
-- Eriq Gardner