If you’ve watched more than five minutes of children’s programming in the last, say, 40 years, you know by heart the variety of marshmallows that make up the Lucky Charms rainbow. The seven marshmallows in Chicago Cub and World Series MVP Ben Zobrist’s new cereal, Zorilla Crunch, are a bit more difficult to nail down.
There’s the green moon. The orange crown. The yellow star. The blue-and-yellow ice cream cone. The pink… um… Yoda head? The purple shark fin-looking thingy. The tie-dyed triangle that might have mutated from an actual bowl of Lucky Charms left for decades behind a couch in the dressing room after a Grateful Dead concert. There’s no rhyme or reason to the sugary amulets in each box of Zobrist’s cereal, but that isn’t really the point.
The combination of athletes and cereal seems natural: the notion of a nutritious breakfast (some more than others) powering you through the day with as much strength and stamina as your favorite sporting heroes. By no measure is the marriage a new phenomenon, but the genre now seems to be experiencing a golden age.
In Chicago, home to baseball’s 2016 world champion Cubs, there are no fewer than three Cub-themed cereals currently on grocery store shelves: Zorilla Crunch, Anthony Rizzo’s “Rizzos,” and David Ross’ “Grandpa Rossy Crunch.” In Cincinnati, you can buy a cereal adorned with Bengals’ tight end Tyler Eifert. In Denver, there are two Broncos-themed cereals: Ed McCaffrey’s “Ed’s Endzone” and C.J. Anderson’s “C.J. Mile High Crunch.” In recent years, there have also been cereals for Peyton Manning, Tim Duncan, Jordy Nelson, Joey Votto, Justin Verlander, and Ryan Miller, to name a few. All are essentially generic equivalents of well-known national brands—Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, and the aforementioned Lucky Charms, mainly. All have names that include the featured athlete, usually modified to include “O’s” at the end or some sort of “crunch” (often spelled with a “k” instead of a “c,” as if in a Prince song title).
The concept of sports stars adorning cereal boxes dates back to before World War II. Most agree the first was Lou Gehrig, pictured on the back of a Wheaties box in 1934. It wasn’t until more than two decades later, in 1958, that athletes graduated to the front of the box, when two-time Olympic pole vault gold medalist Bob Richards made his debut on cereal shelves.
The true marketing revolution—branding cereals for the athletes themselves—came relatively recently, shortly after candy pioneer Ty Ballou took over the Clark candy bar company in Pittsburgh in 1991. The company wasn’t doing particularly well at the time (if you’ve ever had a Clark bar, you might understand why). “They were a struggling candy company,” Ballou says of his acquisition. “I had to fill it to capacity. I had to make the plant work and make it profitable.”
As luck would have it, the Pittsburgh Penguins were on their way to becoming Stanley Cup champions that year. Ballou worked out a deal with the team to put the Penguins’ logo on Clark bars. Sales skyrocketed. Encouraged by the results, Ballou cooked up another sports-related plan to goose sales. With Reggie Jackson slated to enter the Baseball Hall Of Fame in 1993, Ballou brought back the Reggie! bar—which Standard Brands Incorporated had released in 1978 for a five-year run at the height of the player’s powers—selling 500,000.
Then something clicked. The Wheaties model was fine, but it used athletes to promote the cereal brand. Ballou inverted it: “I thought, why not make the athletes the brand themselves?” His first attempt was a 1998 collaboration with then-Buffalo Bills backup quarterback Doug Flutie, who was looking for an avenue to raise money for autism research, in honor of his autistic son. Ballou’s goal was to raise $10,000 for the Flutie Foundation, but no one seemed interested in buying cereal named for Buffalo’s backup quarterback. Then the Bills’ starting quarterback, Rob Johnson, got injured. Flutie started the following week against Jacksonville, and during the game the announcer held up a box of Flutie Flakes. “I was like, ‘Holy hell. I’m going to sell a lot of them,’” Ballou said.
In the end, Ballou’s company sold 2.5 million boxes of Flutie Flakes, launching a new business model. “I should have retired after that one,” Ballou said. “I was younger back then. I thought all of them were going to be like that.”
But sports fans are fickle, and athletes are unpredictable. One bad season, one off-field mistake, and interest fades quickly. Most athlete-themed cereals last only a few years, according to Ballou, if they catch on at all. His company, PLB Sports, has marketed dozens of pro athletes’ cereals over the years, to varying degrees of success. One of the most successful in recent years was a World Wrestling Entertainment-themed cereal called Booty O’s, modeled by the tag team The New Day. Ballou called it a leap of faith. “It’s a horrible business model. We do it really, really well, but we don’t get it right all the time.”
Stephen Mosher, coordinator of the sports studies program at Ithaca College in New York, said that when Bob Richards appeared on the front of a Wheaties box in 1958, he portrayed what Americans wanted to see: a clean-cut, all-American man. Times have changed, and so have cereal boxes. “It reflects where society is at that time,” said Mosher, who keeps an unopened box of Wheaties featuring Mark McGwire on his desk at work. He always hoped it would become a collector’s item; then McGwire became entangled in the steroids scandal. Now it’s just a box of stale cereal. Still, some are better bets than others.
Last year, PLB Sports approached the Cubs’ Anthony Rizzo about partnering on a cereal. While not all cereals promote a charitable foundation, Rizzo’s work to fund juvenile cancer research made him a logical fit (Rizzo is a cancer survivor). To date, PLB said it has sold more than 150,000 boxes of Rizzos.
For the athletes, the allure is simple. Not only does the cereal help promote their personal brand, but they also get royalties from every box sold, Ballou says. At PLB, the athletes are also allowed to design the back of the box, allowing them to promote whatever cause or product they like.
At a news conference earlier this year inside a grocery store to promote the cereal, Rizzo said the cereal has been a win for everyone involved, including his foundation. “I love this. I love being a part of this, and it’s really cool to go into a [grocery store] and see yourself on a cereal box,” Rizzo said. “It never gets old.”