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NFL Draft: Is Jameis Winston Marketable?

As the draft kicks off, all eyes are on Jameis Winston. He can play football, no doubt. But, given his off-the-field problems, is he marketable?
/ Source: NBC News

Jameis Winston can play football — there's no denying that. The Florida State University quarterback, who led his team to the 2014 National Championship, was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first pick of the NFL Draft Thursday. The question about Winston is this: Can he sell sports apparel or shoes or breakfast cereal?

Winston's illustrious college career was often overshadowed by off-the-field problems. During his time as a Seminole, the 21-year-old has a civil suit pending against him that alleges sexual assault — he denies the allegations and has never been charged — he was issued a civil citation for failing to pay for crab legs at a supermarket and he received a suspension after making vulgar comments publicly on campus.

"He's proven himself on the field, but he's taken a lot of hits in the court of public opinion," said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing professor at Columbia University.

Sports marketers told CNBC that they believe Winston's prospect as a product endorser is strong. Winston's agent, Greg Genske, partner at The Legacy agency, said his client is focused on his brand, but on football first and foremost.

"We want to give them (potential sponsors), the opportunity to get to know him directly and to explain anything in his background and answer any questions."

"Jameis is a football player who is excited about his career and getting to work and becoming a championship-caliber quarterback," he said.

Genske says he hasn't encountered any companies that are nervous about signing Winston, and he expects the quarterback to immediately enter into business relationships after he signs with an NFL team.

"We want to give them (potential sponsors), the opportunity to get to know him directly and to explain anything in his background and answer any questions," he said.

Genske said that Winston's on-field success, personality and leadership qualities make him an attractive partner for a lot of companies.

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Just weeks before the draft, Nike, the world's leading maker of sports apparel and shoes, announced that it signed both Winston and University of Oregon star quarterback Marcus Mariota. The signing came one day after it was announced that Erica Kinsman, the woman who accused Winston of rape, was filing a civil suit.

"It says a lot that Nike stepped up," said Favorito.

"I'm not surprised at all," said Bob Williams, CEO of Burns Entertainment and Sports Marketing, "Nike has a long history of signing controversial celebrities to contracts," he added.

Rick Horrow, CEO of Horrow Sports Ventures, said that being first is often what matters most for shoe and apparel makers: "Most marketing boardrooms are buzzing with the dynamic of pre-empting other brands from the Jameis Winston upside balanced against the risk of uncertainty."

"The Tiger Woods phenomenon made the endorsement market full of contracts that are shorter, smaller and easier to terminate," he said. The pro golfer lost sponsorship deals after revelations about extramarital affairs and domestic turmoil blindsided the companies that worked with Woods.

Athleticism first

David Carter, executive director of the Sports Business Institute at the University of Southern California, said when it comes to athlete indiscretions, athleticism tends to overshadow personal behavior.

"Naturally, contracts for both playing and endorsing companies can limit the financial downside to a team or a brand from player misbehavior, but it says something about the brands that are willing to throw too much caution to the wind in the hopes that bad behavior will not be repeated or, worse yet, become chronic," he said. "So while Winston's draft position may not be compromised, his compensation will be more performance-based, both on and off the field."

Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising, agreed. He said he expects brands will want to ensure Winston has what it takes as a player in the NFL and as a fine, outstanding character off the field before making an investment in him. "Likely a result of question marks in his past," he said.

When it comes to smaller-level deals, Dorfman said he expects regional and local relationships to begin cementing as soon as he signs with a team.

"I could really see car dealerships, fast food franchises, things that appeal to a more local crowd, especially if he signs with Tampa Bay, since he's probably most liked in Florida," he said.

Dorfman also said that Winston may make a good endorser for an edgier brand, or a company like Subway that has several athletes already in its portfolio and therefore wouldn't be risking as much.

When it comes to endorsing a celebrity or athlete, many companies do extensive testing to ensure likability through companies such as Repucom. Such firms score athletes' public perception when it comes to awareness, appeal, trust and a variety of other factors.

According to the company, the public has similar awareness of both Winston (31 percent) and Mariota (30 percent).