When a high-profile athlete is signed in a new city, the debate is usually about the level of the athletic impact on the team. In this case, most of the verbal fire -- with good reason -- is around the fact that Michael Vick abused animals. Websites to rally people against the recently-released-from-jail QB, such as www.sackvick.net and www.petsitusa.com/blog/, are certainly getting increased visibility now. And several polls taken by local Philadelphia news organizations revealed that most of the people in the Philly area are opposed to the Vick signing, while Eagles fans, specifically, are split right down the middle.
So it begs the question: Can Michael Vick ever be a spokesperson again, or is he forever toxic?
First, cooler heads need to prevail. It's easy to say never. However, the shock of the signing with this team ("character guys only") is beginning to wear off. And the process of seeing whether Vick can play football like he used to is setting in. I believe it is important to see ahead -- three or six months, or even a year down the road -- and make sponsorship decisions about Michael Vick based on whether he can rehabilitate his own brand image. Some celebrities have done it reasonably well; others can't shake their past. I remember when Allen Iverson was involved in a messy, all-too-public domestic dispute (involving weapons), most marketers wrote him off. But as it turned out, Iverson gained "street cred" from the incident, and sales of his signature Reebok basketball shoes skyrocketed. Go figure.
Point is, the knee-jerk reaction to Vick is that no company should go near him. For most companies, that is probably smart. But I believe the right brand can still gain incredible visibility -- controversy and all. A brand like Nike or Gatorade, for example. Or a brand that has gone through tough times itself, and is on the mend. Our domestic automakers come to mind, but I don't think they are a fit. And the message would have to be painfully honest. No hype. Just some straight talk from a guy who's made some terrible mistakes, is trying to make amends, and put his life back together.
And should the Eagles' sponsors second-guess their association and investment with the team, for fear Vick's polarizing name will rub off on their brands?
Anyone who knows even a little bit about Philly sports knows that we are kinda passionate about our teams. Scratch that. Philly fans are wildly, out-of-our-minds passionate about our teams, and this is a football town. Sponsors that aligned with the team gained significant goodwill over the years, and my gut says that will not change with the newest member of our team. Sure, the blogs are buzzing, trying to rally animal rights protesters into boycotting the Eagles' sponsors. And it's still early to tell if they are going to be successful. But I have my doubts, as there were only a dozen or so protesters outside of the press conference announcing the signing of Vick. And even fewer the next day at pre-season practice. As horrible as Vick's crimes were (and as a dog owner and animal lover, I truly believe they were), the NFL knew it was time to move forward. They had a plan for Vick's re-entry, by making sure he came to the right team, with strong ownership (Jeffrey Lurie), a strong coach (Andy Reid), and a close friend and starting quarterback in Donovan McNabb. Comments made at the press conference by those three were tough, sensitive and intelligent, which seemed to have had a calming effect on the city. Lurie, in particular, plans to hold Vick accountable when he stated: "In spending the time with Michael, I think he deserves that opportunity [for a second chance]. He's going to have to prove it in actions, not in words."
As an agency owner, I think the Eagles' brand is stronger than Michael Vick. From a public relations standpoint, the team strengthened its brand by handling this hand grenade perfectly. And I would not advise my clients to stay away from sponsoring the team. One of my clients already is an Eagles sponsor, and I will advise them to stay the course.
This morning, I turned on the TV, and sports coverage is already focusing on how Vick's arm looks surprisingly sharp. Only a few days after the bombshell signing, it seems like we are moving on. My teenage son, James, summed up the situation best when he said, "If Michael Vick helps the Eagles win, fans will embrace him. That is what a real sports city does." And sponsors will likely follow.