Vick's Return to NFL Casts Light on Corporate Sponsorships

Sponsors Stick With Eagles, but Did Team Owe Them Any Advance Warning of Signing?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- No sponsors have defected from the Philadelphia Eagles or the National Football League in the wake of Michael Vick's return to the league, but last week's announcement cast a spotlight on the sometimes-tenuous relationship between team and corporate partner.

Michael Vick
Michael Vick Credit: AP
Should the Eagles have reached out to its 44 corporate sponsors with some advance notice that the team planned to sign Mr. Vick, who was imprisoned for 23 months after pleading guilty to bankrolling a dog-fighting operation and who killed and tortured some of the under-performing dogs?

Typically, teams, leagues and even individual athletes do not give their sponsors advance notice of their activities, and are under no legal or contractual obligation to do so. "The sponsors signed a valid contract and must pay whether they sign Michael Vick or Joseph Stalin," said Robert Boland, sports marketing professor at New York University. "But what is legal isn't always what is good, or right."

A heads-up
Eagles President Joe Banner said that about a half-dozen of the team's sponsors called him following last Friday's press conference featuring Mr. Vick, Eagles coach Andy Reid and team owner Jeffrey Lurie. "One thing they wanted to do was find out what our thinking was. Another thing they said was that they wished we could have given them a heads-up so that they could have prepared their corporate communications people," Mr. Banner told the Philadelphia Daily News. "We will continue to talk to our corporate sponsors. We will reach back out to them. A couple have issued statements so far. As far as I know, nobody was angry and nobody threatened to cancel. But some did want to understand our thinking, and we spent some time with them."

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Mr. Banner's comments beg the question of whether the Eagles should have been proactive with their sponsors, but the answers aren't so clear cut. "The Eagles should have reached out and given their sponsors some sort of inside information. It's just good business in this current climate," said Mr. Boland. "It creates a greater sense of connectivity in the relationship, and just giving a heads-up would help."

Not so fast, said sports marketing expert Marc Ganis, owner of Chicago-based consultancy SportsCorp. In this case, because of the extraordinary circumstances surrounding Mr. Vick, some of the sponsors might not have wanted to be informed of the signing ahead of time. "Some sponsors simply don't want that responsibility," Mr. Ganis said. "Because then, if word leaks out that the sponsor knew ahead of time, there's a public perception that [the sponsor] is somehow complicit in the deal. At this stage, in this particular instance with Michael Vick, no sponsor wants that."

Which is what one of the Eagles' main sponsors, Philadelphia-based Lincoln Financial Group -- which has its name on the team's stadium -- made clear in a statement it released in response to the Vick signing. "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." Lincoln Financial committed $140 million over 20 years in 2002 for naming rights to the stadium.

New Jersey-based sports and entertainment marketing expert Joe Favorito, who writes the popular blogs Sports Marketing and PR Roundup, said he would be surprised if the Eagles didn't somehow warn their biggest, highest-paying sponsors. "Maybe you don't call your three smallest sponsors, but if your big marketers have invested a lot of money, it could be a case of calling the most senior people and saying, 'Hey, look, if the sky changed tomorrow would you still do business with us?'" Mr. Favorito said.

Get a pulse of the community
"In this day and age, the last thing you want to do is upset your partners. If you have the kind of solid relationship with the partner, it's also a good way to take the pulse of the rest of the business community. The teams and the brands that work best together have an open line of communication. Teams aren't under any obligation to notify their sponsors, but the last thing you want is for one of your sponsors to get a Twitter feed or even get a call from their neighbor breaking the news to them."

The Eagles did reach out to those they dub their "premium-service clients," or those who own expensive suites at Lincoln Financial field, sending them a note from Mr. Banner asking that ticket-holders "join us in our support and optimism for Michael as he commits himself to showing Philadelphia and the country he is a changed human being."

Surprisingly, there has been little public backlash so far. Less than 10 season ticket-holders have canceled, and other than a call for a boycott of sponsors on the website sackvick.net, there has been little hostility shown toward the Eagles' corporate sponsors.

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