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Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Matt Kemp image on gum pouch

By Darren Rovell
ESPN

Shredded gum brand Big League Chew will debut national packaging that will feature an active athlete -- Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp -- instead of the cartoon characters that have existed on more than 500 million pouches since Big League Chew first hit shelves 33 years ago. In June, a picture of Kemp will adorn the front of the gum package.

The brand, through a partnership with PLB Sports, a maker of athlete-endorsed food products, also has signed Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels.

Big League Chew
This image of Dodgers outfielder Matt Kemp will adorn the front of Big League Chew shredded gum pouches starting in June.

"This was uncharted territory for us," said Rob Nelson, who invented the product as a chewing-tobacco alternative along with Jim Bouton when the two were teammates on an independent baseball team in 1977.

"But these guys epitomize what is good about the game of baseball and the time is right."

PLB Sports, which has been the pre-eminent name in partnering athletes with food products, secured the players' deals and, like most of the products it sells, linked up a charity component.

Some proceeds from Kemp's cut of the deal, for example, will go to Kemp's Kids, which provides inner-city youth a chance to get into baseball and stay off the streets.

When the player pouches go on sale this summer, they will be sold at the usual retail price, which ranges from $1 to $1.99, depending on the outlet.

Big League Chew's three-year contract in 1980 with Amurol, Wrigley's wholly owned subsidiary, turned into a 30-year relationship. The pouches were instantly a hit among youth baseball players because they allowed the players to customize how much gum they wanted, not worry about the wrapping and even share with their teammates.

Big League Chew generated a steady $10 million in annual business under Amurol. Nelson, who didn't have the baseball success or the "Ball Four" book sales that Bouton did, has lived a good life off sales royalty checks.

"We had a saying in my house, 'To be rich and famous is good, to be comfortable and anonymous is better,'" Nelson said. "That's where I am. I'm a household name only in my own household."

Aside from a brief period of time when the brand had a marketing deal with the MLB Players Alumni Association and retired players appeared on pouches, most of the packaging has featured the work of Bill Mayer, whose baseball characters were in the style of a popular publication at the time, Mad magazine.

In recent years, Nelson -- who bought out Bouton's share of the business -- has been active in trying to jump-start the brand.

When Mars bought Wrigley for $23 billion in 2008, Nelson was concerned about getting neglected in the big conglomerate and decided to look elsewhere. He bought the machines and took his business to Ford Gum in Akron, N.Y.

Last year, in its first full year in business, Ford grew sales to more than $13 million, which is expected to rise even more thanks to launches of new products, including Big League Chew soft bubble gum balls, and by cleaning up neglected distribution channels.

"For Wrigley and Mars, Big League Chew was a rounding error," said Steve Greene, senior vice president of Ford Gum. "It's entirely the focus of our business."