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Never Too Many Players on the Field

From Namath to Brady, teaming marketers and star athletes is a winning tactic (most of the time)

Illustrations: Gluekit

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By the time the offer for the pantyhose commercial came in, gridiron god Joe Namath was already well into an agonizing decline. Knees jellied by repeated trauma, left hamstring rolled up like a busted window shade, the iconic quarterback of the New York Jets played in just six games in 1973, a season in which he would throw for 966 total yards and a meager five touchdown passes.

Still, the Hanes hosiery brand cared little about Namath’s struggles on the field. Despite the fact “Broadway Joe” had seen his best years long ago, he was still wildly popular with the public. Women were especially taken with his sybaritic charm. More to the point, Namath’s willingness to endorse everything from La-Z-Boy recliners to Hamilton Beach popcorn poppers had made the hobbled superstar the most recognizable—and bankable—athlete of the day.

As it happens, Namath’s mangled legs were just the hook Hanes’ agency, Long Haymes Carr, needed to hoist up the moribund Beautymist line. For his part, the 30-year-old jock figured the ad would be as good for a goof as a paycheck. He had never been shy about making the occasional fashion statement, after all. Long before the NFL would joylessly ban any hint of self-expression on the part of players, Namath could be seen luxuriating on the sidelines in a full-length fur and dark glasses. While rival quarterback Johnny Unitas of the Baltimore Colts prowled the turf in a buzz cut and high-top cleats, the shaggy Namath looked something akin to an Apollo-era pimp.

It is little surprise, then, that Namath’s 30-second spot remains one of the most peculiar commercial artifacts. Clad in women’s stockings, a pair of athletic shorts and his Jets jersey, a grinning, prostrate Namath nails home the pitch. “Now, I don’t wear pantyhose,” he drawls, “but if Beautymist can make my legs look good, imagine what they’ll do for yours.” (Lest anyone wonder whether Namath was wading into David Bowie territory, the spot ends with a fetching young woman nuzzling an upright—and presumably pants-wearing—Namath.)

The ad may have helped land Namath on Nixon’s Enemies List, but Hanes couldn’t have asked for a more impactful spot.

For his part, Namath hated it. Speaking to Adweek after a recent screening of the HBO/NFL Films documentary Broadway Joe, the Hall of Famer recalled that his stomach turned the very first time he saw the ad. “I didn’t go back and look at it again for a long, long time,” he says. “But it was big.”

For marketers looking to get in bed with a high-profile sports figure, “big” is the operative term. A jock’s endorsement comes front-loaded with a wealth of desirable attributes—and risks. Still, an athlete’s ready-made fan base, established personal brand, and presumed sincerity and trustworthiness tend to outweigh any gamble in the eyes of a sponsor—and the greater those attributes, the more they will cost a marketer. For example, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, fresh off his 2011 MVP season, is on the verge of signing a 10-year contract extension with Adidas worth a record $250 million.

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Adidas is betting on Rose’s future prospects rather than his past performance. Despite becoming the youngest player in NBA history to hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Rose had a cold hand during the Bulls’ playoff run, shooting only 39 percent from the field. Chicago would fall to LeBron James and the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, closing the books on its first 60-win season in 13 years.

But make no mistake: Rose is a star. At 23, he hasn’t quite achieved single-name zeitgeist status like Kobe or LeBron, but he puts up 25 points a game and, perhaps more importantly, moves product. Rose already outsells James in China, and his Adidas kicks are second only to Nike’s Zoom Kobe line in that market. (For Adidas, beating Kobe in China isn’t just about market share; the shoemaker still harbors a grudge against the Laker for ditching it for Nike in 2003.)

If Rose represents a reservoir of untapped potential, Tom Brady has proven his value as a pitchman for more than a decade. While not at the very top of the list of sports spokespeople (boasting an estimated $60 million in paid endorsements, PGA Tour vets Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson are playing in a whole other league), Brady’s contracts with Movado, Glaceau Smart Water, Under Armour and Ugg bring him $10 million per year. (Contrary to what many think, Brady does not have a deal with Audi, though he did drive a loaner provided by Best Buddies International, a nonprofit that he supports. Brady made headlines in September 2010 when he crashed the $97,000 Audi S8 sedan near his home in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood.)

Interestingly enough, for a three-time Super Bowl champion who is handsome enough to have curried favor with a Brazilian supermodel (he and Gisele Bündchen were married in 2009), Brady doesn’t do an awful lot of TV. In large part, the quarterback’s endorsements are limited to glossy magazine ads.

“I think the major difference between Tom Brady and other elite quarterbacks comes down to the sort of categories they align themselves with,” says David Schwab, managing director of Octagon First Call, which specializes in celebrity endorsements. “[Indianapolis Colts QB] Peyton Manning works with marketers who are either official NFL sponsors or spend a lot of their budgets in and around football, whereas Brady lives in a more aspirational space,” Schwab says. “Papa John’s and Gatorade just spend their money differently than Ugg and Stetson.”

TV money and a much bigger roster of brand partners give Manning the edge over Brady. Industry estimates put Manning’s annual endorsement haul at around $15 million, or a little more than twice what younger brother and New York Giants signal caller Eli Manning earns. (Eli Manning will gun it out with Brady on Super Sunday when the Giants and Patriots meet in Indianapolis for a rematch of Super Bowl XLII, which New England lost 17-14.)

According to the Davie-Brown Index, which gauges consumer perceptions of public figures, Eli has a slight edge on Brady in terms of awareness. DBI ranks the younger Manning at 79.5 (putting him up there with tough guy Chuck Norris), while Brady rates a 69.9 (on par with runt comic actor David Spade).

Should Eli Manning best Brady and the Patriots next week, he can expect to fend off a horde of marketers heretofore unsure of how to leverage his sleepy charm. (Writer David Roth may have put it best when he observed that Manning looks as though “someone just woke him up by yelling something like, ‘I think there are wolves in the house.’”)

No doubt, success irons out a whole bunch of wrinkles. “If Eli wins the Super Bowl again, I think he’ll get so many requests that he won’t possibly be able to do them all,” says Arthur Solomon, former vp, senior counselor at the PR giant Burson-Marsteller. “And there’s a danger with that. Some personalities do so many endorsements that people no longer take them seriously.”

Then, there’s Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow, perhaps the most polarizing athlete of the 21st century, and so far a largely untested brand pitchman. The 6-foot-3-inch, 235-pound southpaw, who throws a football like a man falling out of a hammock, set hearts aflutter in the Mile High City when he led his 1-4 team on a phenomenal six-week run of come-from-behind victories. Tebow’s improbable run continued into the playoffs, where he steered Denver to a 29-23 sudden-death win over the defending AFC champs, the Pittsburgh Steelers. A week later, Tebow crashed back to Earth when the Pats restored order to the NFL with a 45-10 pasting of the Broncos.

The squeaky-clean Tebow has attracted more than his fair share of derision. The NFL’s answer to Ned Flanders, the fundamentalist Christian Tebow wants to save your soul, and he’s not shy about a most public display of his beliefs. His ritual of genuflecting on the field after a game inspired the “Tebowing” phenomenon, which would spread from Facebook to the opposing sideline. In the first quarter of the Oct. 29 Lions-Broncos mugging, Detroit linebacker Tim Tulloch celebrated his bone-rattling sack of Tebow by bowing in mock prayer over Tebow’s prone figure.

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