Ad Competition From Big-Name Actors Pushes Athletes to the Sidelines

The incredible shrinking athlete endorsement deal, Part 2

Remember a couple of decades ago when movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger would only appear in commercials airing in Japan or Europe?

Now there is a long list of actors willing to take on U.S. campaigns: Rob Lowe (DirecTV), Will Ferrell (Dodge), James Franco (Verizon Droid), Mila Kunis (Jim Beam), Samuel L. Jackson (Capital One), and Jennifer Garner (Capital One). Other A-listers such as Morgan Freeman (Visa), Matt Damon (United), Edward Burns (Honda dealers) and John Krasinski (Esurance) do voiceover work.

Bob Williams, chief executive officer of Burns Entertainment, Chicago, which represents corporate sponsors looking to hire celebrity endorsers, says that a decade ago, 75 percent of his company's celebrity revenue came from athlete endorsers; the other 25 percent came from entertainers. Now, that number has flipped: 75 percent entertainers vs. 25 percent athletes.

Oscar-winning actors such as Kevin Spacey (E-Trade) and Matthew McConaughey are increasingly grabbing commercial gigs that might have gone to athletes. McConaughey, who won the 2014 best actor award for Dallas Buyers Club, now stars in a high-profile ad campaign for Lincoln's MKC crossover.

David Rivers, Lincoln's marketing communications manager, confirmed the automaker considered hiring an athlete before tapping McConaughey. While Buick uses Shaquille O'Neal and Peyton Manning in commercials, Lincoln and ad agency Hudson Rouge jumped at the chance to cast McConaughey.

Like many actors and musicians, he boasts a huge social media following (1.07 million followers on Twitter alone). The client and the agency bet a movie star would break through faster than yet another pro athlete. They were right.

The ads quickly went viral. Saturday Night Live host Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres and Conan O'Brien spoofed the spots, generating millions in free media.

McConaughey also teamed with Scarlett Johansson for Dolce & Gabbana's beautifully shot "Street of Dreams" fragrance spot by Oscar-winner Martin Scorsese. Johansson pitched Chevrolet's Corvette Stingray as part of a product placement tie-in with Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Is hiring Hollywood stars really less risky than hiring athletes?

While the current crop of NFL allegations may trouble sponsors, scandals frequently emerge from Hollywood as well. After all, wasn't the flaky McConaughey famously discovered playing his bongo drums in the nude and arrested for marijuana possession in 1999?

Williams can't really explain it. But he said the shift by advertisers away from athletes—and toward equally risky entertainers—is real and it's accelerating.

"Sports celebrities are no longer viewed by advertisers as being Teflon at the highest level. I feel like advertisers had a confidence in sports celebrities that was broken," he said. "The reaction to it was, instead, to hire celebrities from the entertainment and music worlds."

This article is the second part of Adweek's series on the decline of big-ticket athletic endorsements. Check out the other installments below.

Part 1: Domestic Abuse Allegations Cause Brands to Rethink Sponsorships

Part 2: Ad Competition From Big-Name Actors Pushes Athletes to the Sidelines

Part 3: Athletes' Surprising Competition for Endorsement Deals? The Dead