Unfortunately, there is some question as to whether “good character’’ matters as much as “bad character’’ when it comes to sports and sports marketing.
This spring, Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers received a nine-digit shoe deal from Adidas, a transaction that mystified some market viewers who were unaware of Lillard’s appeal across the country. Because he plays in Portland, Ore., and plays for a team that has had limited success in the league, there was considerable chin-rubbing when it came to explaining Adidas’ move.
Meanwhile, the city of Cleveland and the Cleveland Browns of the National Football League are marketing their third-string quarterback, draft pick Johnny Manziel, with a zeal that is close to the equal of Manziel’s need for the spotlight. With numerous, albeit minor, character strikes against him from his time at Texas A & M, it was noteworthy that Manziel was spotted during a break in training for the Browns in Las Vegas with a high-profile girlfriend.
In terms of sports marketing, character matters. But some marketers are willing to back an athlete with a slightly checkered past, because such players get noticed. Other marketers want to try to find the squeaky clean athlete with the team-first mentality in hopes that his or her appeal will lead consumers to support the companies that support the player.
Which brings us back to the curious case of Lillard, who by all accounts is one of the best behaved young men in the National Basketball Association. In only his second season, Lillard has risen to stardom on the court with his play and earned kudos galore for his behavior off the court.
Lillard is big on promoting the team, which the Trail Blazers could use. He is a team-first guy, as evidenced by his habit of pointing to the team name on his jersey in big moments, including his 3-pointer that sent the Blazers past the Houston Rockets in the first round of the playoffs. It was Portland’s first trip to the second round in 14 years, and Lillard celebrated by grabbing a courtside microphone and yelling “Rip City’’ to the attending fans, a declaration that he was celebrating the team and the city where he plays, not his personal accomplishment.
Lillard’s success works for a company that has recently backed Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose and Houston center Dwight Howard. Rose has been injured most of the last two seasons and Howard is a persnickety personality at best, whose commitment to winning has been questioned.
So what about Manziel, who is the most popular Cleveland Brown before ever playing a down?
With a gunslinger mentality, Manziel became famous at Texas A&M for running around behind his offensive line until he found someone to pass to. He is not considered a lock to succeed in the NFL.
But he has signed a deal with Nike, and marketers are looking forward to using his nickname, Johnny Football, to sell product once he moves into the starting lineup. He has a pending trademark deal for “Johnny Football”.
All of this for a player who, in college, was suspected of signing football and other memorabilia for cash, and who has irked some marketers with his “show me the money’’ sign flashing that he has done all too often.
The huge marketing push of athletes really got going when Nike signed Michael Jordan, who was squeaky clean in 1985 and rewarded Nike with the performance of the ages. Then he turned out to have a gambling problem and a womanizing problem and through it all Nike has stuck with him because he sells product.
So is “good’’ that sells, or “bad”?