This week, Michael Vick, the former quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, has been conditionally restated to the NFL, though it’s unclear where exactly he will go. Vick, who is 29, was a popular player with endorsement deals from Nike and AirTran Airways that cumulatively netted him an income in the $4 million-plus range, but Vick’s career took an unexpected turn in 2007 when he was cited as a key figure in a dogfighting ring and eventually served time in prison. Could Vick rehabilitate his image? If so, which sponsors would conceivably take a chance on him? To answer these questions, Brandweek asked some sports marketing experts their opinions:
Ben Sturner, CEO, Leverage Agency: It’s not a lost cause. I mean, look at Kobe Bryant. Kobe comes to mind right away as someone who’s had a tarnished image and is resurrected. A lot of it depends on what happens on the field. At the same time, sometimes you can’t go back. Barry Bonds is at the end of his career right now, but he’s been accused of steroids back at the day. You look at A-Rod and his troubles off the field and I was at Yankee Stadium last week and he had one of the loudest cheers. Everybody can have redemption on the field.
Marc Bluestein, president, Aquarius Sports Group: I think he could [come back]. A lot will depend on his performance on the field and should he get a chance to rehabilitate his NFL career and if people feel he’s paid his debt to society. Another great NFL example is what happened to [Baltimore Ravens linebacker] Ray Lewis who was on trial for double murder and rehabilitated himself to the point where just a few years ago he was the cover boy for Madden Football. It’s a forgiving society, especially when it comes to sports and in my opinion, he’s an exciting, marketable player and athlete that will connect to kids and teens who want to be like him and based upon the success he had as a pitchman previously, but it’s all going to be relative to performance on the field.
[Regarding Vick’s rumored plan to do work on behalf of animal rights group PETA]: I think it would be a very transparent public relations ploy and how sincere can it be? I think he shouldn’t do that. He’s addressed that in his public comments and recognizes it and to sort of align himself now with PETA…Critics will say, “The only reason he’s doing this is because people told him he should do this.”
David Schwab, vp, Octagon Sports Marketing’s First Call and managing director of athletes and personalities: It’s a two-part answer: There’s a consumer and a brand answer. I think for the majority of consumers it can be rehabilitated over time. I think there is a hard-core pet lover for whom the issue will never be won over. I would say it’s going to be much harder for the brand. There are way too many celebrities, athletes and football players out there in this day and age of due diligence and risk, it’s not worth it.
[On Ray Lewis]: There are always categories that sometimes become risk-immune almost and I would [identify those as ] videogame and sneakers. That’s where you see Ray Lewis, that’s where you see Allen Iverson. I think those brands will watch how consumers react to him. Those consumers are typically not the pet lover…If there were going to be industries that would bring him back as an endorser, I think videogames and shoes would be the first places to look.
Patrick McGee, CEO, ProVentures Group and one of Vick’s former reps at Octagon: I don’t think his image can go further down, so it certainly will be rehabilitated to some degree if he has the right road going forward. As far as sponsors, I think it’s unlikely for major brands, but it’s not impossible that he’ll get an endorsement again. We have a short-term memory for these things as people excel from a performance standpoint. [Vick’s relationship with former NFL coach and evangelical Christian Tony Dungy] is a good first step. When people are given second chances and they take advantage of them, there is some goodwill going forward, but it will take time and some extraordinary performances.