Gatorade signs NHL star Jack Hughes to endorsement deal: Exclusive

Gatorade will announce an endorsement deal with New Jersey Devils rookie forward Jack Hughes on Wednesday, adding another rising star to its athlete roster at a time of unprecedented competition in the U.S. sports drink marketplace, FOX Business has exclusively learned.

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Hughes, 18, joins a growing list of top Gatorade athletes under the age of 25, including much-hyped NBA rookie Zion Williamson and U.S. soccer star Christian Pulisic. The partnership marks the highest-profile endorsement deal to date for Hughes, who was selected with the first pick in the 2019 NHL Draft and made his Devils debut this fall.

“I think it was the perfect move for me,” Hughes told FOX Business. “With me wanting to be at the peak of my game and wanting to keep getting better, I think Gatorade shares the same common goals and tries to make me the best player I can be. I think it’s a perfect match. Obviously Gatorade’s such a known name in the sports world, kind of monster in the product business. To be a part of it and the Gatorade family, it’s really special.”

Gatorade will reveal the partnership in a post to its Instagram account. The deal’s financial terms were not disclosed.

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The Pepsico-owned brand has held a dominant position in the U.S. sports drink marketplace for decades, delivering $5.55 billion in domestic sales in 2018, according to Euromonitor data. Gatorade controls more than 70 percent of the overall market, according to Nielsen.

However, Gatorade is under pressure from BodyArmor, the upstart sports drink brand that counts Coca-Cola and NBA legend Kobe Bryant as key shareholders and has a roster of athletes that includes Houston Rockets star James Harden and Los Angeles Angels star Mike Trout. The company has grown quickly in recent years, from a one-percent market share in 2016 to more than eight percent at present, and argues in marketing that the science behind its product has surpassed that of Gatorade.

Jeff Kearney, Gatorade’s head of sports marketing, downplayed the notion that the brand’s recent partnerships are part of a bid to stave off BodyArmor or any other competitors’ reach with young consumers.

“We focus on our house,” Kearney said. “We’re not the best because we’ve been around the longest, we’ve been around the longest because we’re the best. I think science proves that. I think we constantly challenge ourselves to push the envelope with new innovation, with a portfolio of products that Jack will have access to, that the Devils have access to.”

Connecting with millennials and Gen-Z shoppers is crucial for Gatorade to maintain its leading position in the marketplace. While its roster of athletes has undergone a youth movement in recent years, Kearney notes that the brand has a history of partnering with future stars at the outset of their careers, including Dwyane Wade and Peyton Manning.

“Signing them early on isn’t necessarily a brand new thing, but these athletes, with the world of social media and being able to see highlights of these players when they’re so early in their trajectory, it’s tough to take your eyes off of them,” Kearney said. “Our consumer base is very young as well, so I guess I’d look at it as more of a continuation of us trying to identify athletes when they’re early in their careers.”

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Hughes met with representatives from the Gatorade Sports Science Institute last month. Company officials asked the Devils rookie about how he uses Gatorade products, his favorite drink flavors and other details that will help the company customize a support plan for their newest athlete.

The substance of Hughes’ eventual campaigns with Gatorade will depend largely on his personal motivations and the message he would like to convey to the public, Kearney said. The brand has a history of delivering personalized campaigns for athletes, such as Derek Jeter’s farewell message to baseball fans prior to his retirement in 2014 or the commercial featuring tennis star Serena Williams during her days as a youth player.

Even with the rise of BodyArmor and other competitors, Hughes, who scored the first goal of his NHL career on Oct. 19, said Gatorade has never lost its connection with young athletes since the playing days of its original endorsers, Michael Jordan and Mia Hamm.

“I think, as much competition as there is, there’s been one common theme over all these years – Gatorade’s been at the top for all these years,” Hughes said. “There’s competition, but Gatorade’s still at the top of the business. It’s still the coolest drink on the market that you want to get after a game. It’s always a kid saying, “Can I get a Gatorade?’ I think Gatorade’s still at the top of the market and it will be for a lot of years to come.”

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