March Madness for NFL Brands as Manning and Tebow Shift, Saints Get Punished

Top Endorser Goes to Denver; Last Year's Hit Moves to Biggest Media Market; and New Orleans Sent to Dog House

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It will go down as one of the most remarkable 24-hour periods in National Football League history and in the offseason, no less -- three major storylines, all with marketing and advertising implications.

On Tuesday, the Denver Broncos officially announced the signing of the league's top endorser, free-agent quarterback Peyton Manning, who replaces last year's starting quarterback, Tim Tebow. The Broncos on Wednesday then traded Mr. Tebow to the New York Jets -- shifting the hub of "Tebow-mania" to the world's biggest media market.

Also on Wednesday, the NFL came down with enormous fines and suspensions for various members of the New Orleans Saints, who had conducted a "bounty program" in which players were rewarded with cash for hits and tackles that knocked out opposing players. One of the league's favorite Cinderella storylines -- the historically hapless Saints winning the Super Bowl in 2009 -- was suddenly tarnished.

The Tebow pose that became a trend.
The Tebow pose that became a trend.

Setback or opportunity for Tebow?
Mr. Tebow was the most talked-about player in the NFL last year. The second-year quarterback came off the bench to lead the Broncos to the playoffs with a series of miraculous comeback victories, also touching off a worldwide craze known as "Tebowing" -- dropping to one knee, elbow bent with forehead resting in hand, in prayer, as the religious Mr. Tebow does during games.

The problem is that he will be a backup quarterback in New York, behind incumbent starter Mark Sanchez, at least to start the season.

Sports-marketing expert Bob Dorfman, the executive creative director at San Francisco's Baker Street Advertising, predicted two months ago in an AdAge.com story that Mr. Tebow's success could push his endorsement portfolio from $1 million to $2 million into the eight-figure range. Being a backup drags that figure down -- but not by as much as if he'd gone to another team. "If there's one place Tim Tebow can go and sit on the bench and still keep his brand intact, it's New York," said Mr. Dorfman.

David Carter, principal of the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group and executive director of the University of Southern California Sports Business Institute, agreed.

"I think we've seen plenty of athletes over the years who don't perform at the top of their game who still resonate with consumers and companies," Mr. Carter said. "What he might be lacking in ability to play at a high level is mitigated by playing in New York."

At the very least, Mr. Dorfman said, Mr. Tebow's endorsement deals with Nike , Jockey, EA Sports and FRS energy drink will be enhanced by local and regional deals in New York.

The Manning gamble
Mr. Tebow was forced out of Denver by the signing of Mr. Manning, the NFL's No. 1 marketing darling. Mr. Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a neck injury that required three surgeries, and he was released earlier this month by the Indianapolis Colts, the only team he played for in his 14-year career before signing with the Broncos.

Kevin Adler, president of Chicago-based sports marketing group Engage Marketing, said Mr. Manning has the potential to build on his legacy -- but also to tarnish it.

"If this injury is prohibitive, and he isn't the same Peyton Manning that we know, that could hurt his brand," Mr. Adler said.

In the short term, Mr. Adler said the signing of Mr. Manning is "a huge boost for the Denver Broncos' brand. Just the attention factor alone, I have to assume there's going to be some recalibration," he said.The Broncos will suddenly be featured in more 'A' games on television, and the signing should positively affect their revenue at every level."

Saints' brand damaged
At the same time, the New Orleans Saints took a massive hit to their franchise brand when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced the shocking one-year suspension without pay of Head Coach Sean Payton, who allegedly covered up the extra cash payouts for the bounty program. In addition, the league announced an indefinite suspension of the Saints' former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams; an eight-game ban of team General Manager Mickey Loomis; a six-game suspension for assistant coach Joe Vitt; and a half-million dollar fine and the removal of the team's second-round draft pick this year and in 2013.

That series of events is "devastating in the near term," Mr. Carter said. "The Saints have to go back and establish credibility with everybody who does business with them. You can laugh and say that 's football, that it's a violent game to begin with, but that bounty program is just a breach in sportsmanship. They're going to have to go out of their way to rehabilitate their franchise."

Mr. Adler agreed.

"The Saints are hurt. It damages their brand," he said. "When you associate yourself with a sports property, you associate with another brand and it's based on brand characteristics. If those characteristics change, that 's a problem. If you're a brand about good values and family values, you're going to hesitate before being associated with them. Right now, this is a negative brand to be associated with."

The Saints have not lost any team sponsors in the immediate aftermath of the suspensions and fines, and Darren Marshall doesn't think they will.

"It's a short-term hit," said Mr. Marshall, exec VP for sports-marketing firm Revolution. "If you spend any time in New Orleans, what strikes you is the number of people walking around with Saints jerseys. You just don't see that elsewhere in other markets. The city and the team is so united. It's like your kid being busted for something. You might be upset, but you don't love him any less."

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