Ian Happ’s push to market himself off the field
When Ian Happ first walked into the Cubs clubhouse at Busch Stadium as a big leaguer in 2017, there were plenty of players he could turn to if he had any questions or trepidations.
After all, this was the team that knew how to win — they had just broken the Cubs’ 108-year title drought. But besides being an accomplished set of ballplayers, this was a team that was highly popular and marketable especially after their history-making exploits the previous fall.
And to Happ, a finance major at the University of Cincinnati, that was intriguing, especially because the career of a baseball player can be so succinct.
“The average career is now 3-and-a-half years,” Happ said. “The number of guys getting to 10 years of service is down exponentially, so to be able to connect with the fan base and give yourself an opportunity to have other things past your playing career is massive.”
So Happ looked at what other guys on the team were doing to promote themselves and knew he wanted to do that, too. But he knew he couldn’t do it right away. When a player is first called up there’s plenty to learn and adjust to, that side projects outside of the game can get in the way.
“There’s a learning curve and time,” Happ said.
Happ made sure he could establish himself as a big-league player before he really dove head-first into any other off-the-field projects. He definitely dabbled, though, in causes that meant something to him, mainly those surrounding mental health awareness.
He had artwork commissioned — Wrigley Through My Eyes — that was sold with proceeds going to various charities. Happ continues that with another charity, Bring Change to Mind, to bring awareness to mental health.
“We were able to do these beautiful drawings of the field and kind of push to donate all the proceeds from that to mental health,” Happ said. “It’s been a special endeavor.”
Jumping in headfirst
After spending three seasons in the majors, Happ felt the time was right to make that jump into more outward marketing of himself. And the COVID-19 pandemic helped accelerate that.
With his altruistic mind, Happ wanted to explore a way to brand himself and give back. So, he turned to a lifelong love: coffee.
“My parents were huge coffee drinkers,” Happ said. “So, I started drinking coffee at a relatively young age.”
In his first few offseasons as a professional player, Happ lived with his brother, Chris, who showed him the art of coffee brewing beyond just your regular, run-of-the-mill coffee.
“He was a huge coffee drinker and made sure to start French press and pour over and look into some of those finer brewing methods,” Happ said.
That sparked his interest in exploring different brews and companies from across the world. That’s where his partnership with Connect Roasters started. Connect Roasters provided Happ an opportunity to learn the business side of coffee and to give back, which he did with his first partnered line of coffee, Quarantine Coffee.
“One of the reasons why Connect was so enticing, because one of the pillars of their brand to begin with was a giveback model,” Happ said. “[Connect Roasters founder Caleb Benoit and the company] were giving back to the farmers in communities where they were sourcing the beans in Guatemala and Nicaragua and all over the world.”
Slowly, Happ transitioned from an ambassador role to take on a larger load on the business front. He learned everything, from farming the beans to the point of sale. That in it of itself was a humbling experience for Happ.
“I’m an expert in playing baseball,” Happ said. “You’re competing with hundreds of thousands of coffee brands out there.”
But that’s made the success he’s seeing with the brand — Connect Roasters being sold in brick-and-mortar stores in the Chicagoland area and a subscription model directly tied to Happ, dubbed the Home Run Club — more rewarding.
“To be able to work hand in hand with [Benoit] and help on the marketing side and help be really engrained with the ideas and the direction the company’s moving, is just a super fulfilling thing for me,” Happ said. “That’s what I wanna do and how I wanna spend my time is really trying to enrich a brand and help with some high-level decisions.”
Passing it on
When Happ looks at other sports, he’s amazed at just how active and outward the athletes in those sports are with their branding and marketing.
“It’s always something I’ve been interested in,” Happ said.
And Happ wants to pass on that interest. He wants other baseball players to take endeavors outside of the game and market themselves. It could help grow the game and their image for their post-playing career.
But he stresses the importance of growing their images and connecting with fans in a manner in which the players have a passion for what they are doing. That makes the learning curve a little easier and it makes the connection with fans and brands more authentic.
“[It] is a lot more beneficial than putting up a post with a line from the company with ‘#ad’ behind it,” Happ said. “I just don’t feel like that’s how I want to be seen or how I want to connect with fans and if I could make it a more real or intimate connection, it means a lot more to me and it’s worth my time.”
That can help everyone; it grows the personalities and personas of the athletes playing baseball and it markets them to new audiences. It also helps from a playing standpoint, too.
“I think the one thing that I learned was really important from Joe Maddon late in my career is just having a life outside of baseball that takes you away from the everyday grind of this,” David Ross said. “I think it’s important to have that stuff outside of baseball. It’s nice to have that release when you get outside.”
Happ hopes he can inspire other players, whether in the Cubs clubhouse or not, to do likewise and the benefits it has for everyone.
“I think the NFTs are a great example, the more guys can be educated on that and kind of engrain themselves into what else is happening in the world, the more it can benefit them,” Happ said. “I love having conversations with teammates about opportunities and where they can best place their times.”