Reducing Risk of Vick-timization

Nike, Others Use Ensemble Tack in Ads as More Athletes Run Into Trouble With Law

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Nike's suspension of a football-training shoe tied to indicted Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick amid public outrage over his alleged role in a dog-fighting ring was made easier by the sports-apparel behemoth's embrace in recent years of an ensemble approach to its football advertising.
Embattled NFL star Michael Vick
Embattled NFL star Michael Vick Credit: Tami Chappell

While Nike and other marketers say using a large group of athletes in commercials gives ads a broader and more diverse appeal, sports-marketing experts detect a whiff of risk management in that approach, particularly at a time when Mr. Vick is merely the latest in a growing list of football players with legal troubles.

"When you hang a brand on one guy, you're taking a huge risk," said Jason Cavnar, managing director at Sports Business Ventures, Century City, Calif.

Troubled athletes
Trouble has been finding football stars with greater frequency of late. Talented Tennessee cornerback Adam "Pacman" Jones was suspended for a year following a string of incidents including allegedly starting a melee at a strip club that left one man paralyzed. The Chicago Bears released defensive tackle Tank Johnson after he served prison time on gun-possession charges and was arrested on drunk-driving charges only weeks after his release. And nine Cincinnati Bengals players were arrested last season.

Given that backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that Nike has been shifting its ads away from individual players in recent years. While, in 2004, it was airing ads such as the "Michael Vick Experience," which likened Mr. Vick's speed and elusiveness to a theme-park ride, last season's ads showed a long list of pro players -- including Mr. Vick, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, among others -- cast as a high-school football team.

A Nike spokesman noted that the marketer had used a long roster of football endorsers last season, and added that Mr. Vick -- who still has signature cleats and apparel in stores -- wasn't slated to star in any commercials this season.

Nike's chief rival in the football-cleat business, Under Armour, has always relied on ensemble ads. Steve Battista, the company's VP-brand, said Under Armour tries not to "let any one person get bigger than the brand." He said that stems more from an emphasis on team sports than from any strategy to minimize situations like that which has befallen Mr. Vick, who finds his future as an endorser, a professional athlete and even a free man uncertain.

'Due process'
Nike isn't dropping him, and said in a statement he "should be afforded the same due process as any citizen."

But the ugliness of the dog-fighting allegations, which Nike's statement called "inhumane and abhorrent" and "highly disturbing," could make it difficult for the company to stand by him for long.

Mr. Vick, who was paid an estimated $7 million in endorsements last year, according to Sports Illustrated, has lost other deals since the charges. AirTran did not renew its deal to keep the athlete as pitchman, a role he's held since 2004.

Even if Mr. Vick isn't found guilty in court, it's clear that a dog-fighting ring in which canines were killed and maimed operated out of one of his houses for years. In a statement released late last week, the Humane Society of the United States ripped Nike's decision as a "halfway step that falls short of common sense and decency."

Even Sen. John Kerry wrote a letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell urging a one-year suspension for Mr. Vick.
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