NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- The National Football League, the Philadelphia Eagles and dozens of corporate sponsors are about to find out if one of sports' oldest cliches -- winning cures all ills -- is true.
The Eagles last night signed Michael Vick to a two-year deal, bringing the disgraced former Atlanta Falcons quarterback back to the league after he spent 23 months in federal prison on dog-fighting charges. The team held a press conference today in which Mr. Vick expressed remorse, coach Andy Reid said he understood that initial public reaction will be tepid, and Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie admitted to a great deal of soul-searching before signing Mr. Vick.
Left unmentioned were the team's 44 corporate partners, not to mention the NFL's major sponsors. The question remains, are sponsors at risk of a public backlash or boycott, or will all be forgotten -- if not forgiven -- if the Eagles win and Mr. Vick plays a contributing role?
"If they go on to win the Super Bowl, you can bet sponsors will still want to be attached to the team," said Steve Rosner, president of 16W Marketing, East Rutherford, N.J. "You might find a sponsor here or there upset with the team for making this move, so maybe moving forward at the end of a contract they might decide to spend their money somewhere else. But it will only be a couple of sponsors."
"Sponsors already realize there are risks involved when you attach your brand to a team or an individual athlete," says Darin David, account director at the sports-marketing firm Millsport in Dallas. "In this case, the sponsors are attached to a team sport with more than 50 players on the roster and it won't have a huge impact. PR wise, there will be minimal risk."
If marketers are leery about the association with Mr. Vick, who admitted to bankrolling a dog-fighting ring and to killing -- sometimes horrifically -- dogs that didn't perform well, it's hard to tell. Calls and e-mails were not returned by several major sponsors of the Eagles, including pharmaceutical company Teva USA, which had the logo for its switch2hfa.com site for a new asthma inhaler prominently featured on the backdrop of the Eagles banner at the press conference; and cupcake and cookie-maker TastyKake. Both are based in Philadelphia. Cable giant Comcast returned a call seeking comment with the response "no comment."
Lincoln Financial Group, which has the naming rights to the stadium, commented: "We have a strong commitment to the Greater Philadelphia region, which includes a long-term agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles for stadium naming rights to Lincoln Financial Field. Our partnership includes a variety of community-related initiatives and reinforces our focus on supporting civic, cultural and educational programs in all the communities where we operate. We have no role in Eagles operations, including personnel decisions."
'Between nuisance and problem'
"I divide things into nuisance, problem and crisis. For me, this quivers between nuisance and problem for the sponsors," said Eric Dezenhall, CEO of Washington-based Dezenhall Resources, a PR and crisis communications consultancy. "If he were my client, what I would say is that he did a terrible thing, he went to jail for two years, and this is what we do in this country -- we let people back up. Are you going to make PETA happy with that? No, but that's not your goal."
Mr. Dezenhall is from Philadelphia, a town notorious for having some of the toughest, most dedicated fans in sports. They once booed Santa Claus at a football game, and were one of the first teams to put a jail inside their stadium to deal directly with drunk, unruly fans. But they're also fiercely loyal, and on a PhiladelphiaEagles.com poll asking whether it was right so sign Vick, 81% voted "yes."
"Philadelphia is the perfect spot for him," Mr. Dezenhall said. "If they win, all is forgiven with Michael Vick. Kicking people's asses has been at the core of Philadelphia for 300 years. Philadelphia, especially, has always loved its thugs. Philadelphia cheered for the mafia, for God's sake."
Marc Ganis, president of the sports marketing consultancy SportsCorp, Chicago, agreed, but for a different reason. "The only team that could have signed Vick and withstood what will certainly be criticisms is a team that had confident ownership and goodwill built up in the community. The Eagles fit that description."
Already, offers for Eagles tickets are burning up the web on eBay, and Mr. Vick's No. 7 Philadelphia jersey is already for sale on NFL.com for $79.99. He can participate in all meetings, practices and exhibition games during the preseason, but is suspended by the NFL from participating in regular season games until at least Week 6.
A call to Bob Liga, local ad-sales manager for the ABC affiliate WPVI in Philadelphia, to see if advertisers were buying time on preseason Eagles games that PVI televises, went unreturned.
Mr. Vick appeared for only 27 minutes at Friday's press conference, saying he made a "terrible mistake" and "I will help young individuals from going down the same path that I did." He is scheduled to appear on "60 Minutes" on Sunday, but these were his first public comments since being released from jail in May -- a move Mr. Dezenhall said was correct and, now that Mr. Vick has actually signed a contract, helpful to sponsors.
"Less is more," Mr. Dezenhall said. "You always have to counsel a client in the context of who they are and in their strengths and weaknesses. Michael Vick is not a nice guy. He's not likable. You can't take somebody who is not likable and who committed an off-the-grid crime and do PR. That demands just an evangelical belief in spin. A guy like Vick, your goal is to minimize. You don't want this guy out there, giving too many speeches."
Mr. Vick will be working with The Humane Society to curb dog-fighting. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued a statement that read: "Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Philadelphia Eagles have granted Michael Vick a second chance, and the ASPCA expects Mr. Vick to express remorse for his actions, as well as display more compassion and sound judgment this time around than he did during his previous tenure with the NFL. We hope that Mr. Vick uses his stature for the betterment of the community and the advancement of the issue of animal cruelty."
PETA, though, has been a lot more strident. The animal-rights group --which had once expressed an interest in working with Mr. Vick, but then said it would only do so if he took a psychological exam -- issued its own statement.
"PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen to sign a man who hanged dogs from trees, electrocuted them with jumper cables, held them underwater until they drowned in his swimming pool, and even threw his own family dogs into the fighting pit to be torn to shreds while he laughed. What sort of message does this send to young fans who care about animals and don't want to see them be harmed? PETA certainly hopes that Vick has learned his lesson and feels truly remorseful for his crimes -- but since he's given no public indication that that's the case, only time will tell."