Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby becomes hockey's marketing icon for the cyber age

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EDMONTON - He's the subject of hundreds of Internet discussion groups that compare him to Jesus Christ, ask for his hand in marriage or seek to know him better in language as subtle as spiked heels and a leather bustier.

There are more than 1,700 memorabilia items - pictures, pucks, posters - bearing his image on EBay alone.

Books, blogspots and websites dissect the numerological implications of his fascination with No. 87. You can click to find photos of him as a toddler, or see art of the family dryer he dented with the shots of a thousand pucks.

As hockey's first superstar of the cyber age, Pittsburgh Penguins star forward Sidney Crosby - who plays his first NHL games in Western Canada this week - lives in a world where every trivial scrap and moment of his life is deemed worthy of worldwide distribution.

"He's different than some of the players that they (the NHL) have had in the past in that he's grown up in the cyber age, so he's much more savvy in terms of understanding the value of it and marketing himself and the league," said Dan Mason, a sports business professor at the University of Alberta.

"He seems to be the complete package from the get-go."

Log on to the Facebook social networking website and there are 500-plus newsgroups dedicated to the 20-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S.

One is dedicated to counting down the days until Crosby leaves Pittsburgh as a free agent to join the team of his childhood love, the Montreal Canadiens.

There's an "I Hate Sidney Crosby" group, complete with his head pasted on a pink flower print dress. The antidote is the "I Hate Crosby Haters" group.

One Facebooker pronounces she will be Mrs. Sidney Crosby and leaves a standing invitation to friends for her wedding. There's the "I Am in Love with Sidney Crosby" group (631 members), the "I Want Sidney Crosby So Bad" group (356 members) and the "Sidney Crosby is Kind of Like Jesus" group, which praises the Penguins' captain as the saviour of hockey in western Pennsylvania and displays a picture of him carrying a hockey stick like a yoke next to a portrait of a dolorous Christ toting his wooden burden on the via dolorosa.

"It's intrusive and it takes a certain type of person to be able to handle the demands of having your life intruded upon. One of the things that has really helped him is he's willing and able to be expose himself to the media that way. Other players might crumble under the pressure," said Mason.

There are websites and blogspots: wheressidney.com, sidneycrosby.se, sidney-crosby.info. They're bursting with information (Crosby had an 85 per cent average in Grade 11) and worshipful images (thepensblog.com features Crosby's face on Matt Damon's body on a "Bourne Identity" movie poster to make it "The Bourne Scorer") to go with desktop art, screensavers and contests.

Fans swamp him during public appearances.

On dedicated Crosby memorabilia web pages you can pick up signed jerseys, replica jerseys, photos, prints, wall clocks and coins. (His rookie card is going for $13 and change).

He's the pitchman for Gatorade, Reebok and others, reflecting a marketing savvy of the new age, says Keith McIntyre, president of Mississauga, Ont.-based sports marketing consultant K. Mac and Associates.

"A lot of these superstars - Tiger Woods is another great example - are very focused on very few deals, but they do much bigger deals," said McIntyre.

"They become integrated and associated (with the product). Companies buy that association and apply to what their brand stands for."

Crosby has helped his advertising credibility with on-ice accomplishment, such as winning the league scoring race last year, he said.

The next step, McIntyre said, is hockey's Holy Grail.

"The true measurement comes with the Stanley Cups. Those are things that will enhance his brand value in the marketplace," he said.

"Success and championships are what will bring it to the next level for him."


Mat Barzal

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