NFL megastar Michael Vick has long been judged by his quarterback rating. Today, Vick and his bean counters have a bigger concern.
A federal indictment handed down Tuesday against Vick for felony dogfighting charges threatens to further deplete and perhaps decimate the flashy quarterback’s once-posh endorsement portfolio — sponsorships that currently pay him $7 million a year. According to sports marketers, Vick’s cachet as a celebrity pitchman for Nike and other companies is as wobbly as a Hail Mary pass.
“His reputation has taken a harder hit than any linebacker could have put on him,” said Don Hinchey, vice president of communications for the Bonham Group, a sports and entertainment marketing firm based in Denver, Colo.
Vick’s legal troubles prompted Nike on Thursday to suspend the release of its latest product line named after the Atlanta Falcons quarterback.
Nike has told retailers it will not release a fifth signature shoe, the Air Zoom Vick V, this summer. Stoyer said the four shoe products and three shirts that currently bear Vick’s name will remain in stores.
Vick will be arraigned next week in a Richmond, Va., federal courtroom on charges of sponsoring a gruesome dogfighting operation.
Nike spokesman Dean Stoyer said the company still has a standing contract with Vick but declined to speculate on his future with Nike.
A statement released by Nike Inc. said the company “is concerned by the serious and highly disturbing allegations made against Michael Vick, and we consider any cruelty to animals inhumane and abhorrent. We do believe that Michael Vick should be afforded the same due process as any citizen; therefore, we have not terminated our relationship."
Vick signed his current contract with Nike in 2001, the same year Atlanta chose him as the NFL’s No. 1 overall draft pick.
Even before the animal cruelty case surfaced, Vick’s corporate status had been chomped to the bone by months of bad press. His obscene gesture to Atlanta Falcons’ fans last November drew a $10,000 fine. His water bottle with the hidden compartment (containing a “dark particulate”) was confiscated in January by airport security in Miami. Even his love life lagged when Vick settled a lawsuit with a woman who claimed he infected her with herpes.
Not since NBA sharpshooter Kobe Bryant hemorrhaged endorsement dollars amid 2003 rape allegations has a high-profile athlete faced such a financial fiasco.
“It just hasn’t been a great summer for him,” said David Carter, founder of the Sports Business Group, a Southern California-based provider of strategic sports-marketing services.
“It’s worse than Kobe Bryant, because five years ago we still expected something from our athletes, some semblance of professionalism. Now we expect so little,” Carter said. “It’s not a one-time mess with Mike Vick. If I’m a corporation, I say, ‘Why put up with this? There’s no need to link our brand to him.’ Anybody who wants to get involved with him is doing so at extraordinary risk.”
The shiniest jewel in Vick’s once-fat clump of endorsement bling belongs to Nike. According to press reports, the shoe behemoth has a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract with Vick. So far, Nike is standing behind the player, issuing a terse statement: “We’re aware of the indictment and are reviewing the information. We have no further comment at this time.” But soon, Nike may be the only company willing to pay Vick to plug its products.
In May, AirTran Airways cut ties with Vick. The airline didn’t specifically point to the federal dogfighting probe or the litany of off-field scrapes, yet it opted not to renew its three-year relationship with the player. Coca-Cola (via its sports drink PowerAde) and Kraft Foods also have allowed endorsement deals with Vick to lapse. A Coca-Cola spokeswoman said the Atlanta-based beverage giant decided three years ago to switch the marketing strategy for PowerAde away from pro athletes and toward non-traditional sports, while a Kraft spokeswoman said the food company merely held a “seasonal” deal with Vick in 2005. Hasbro also has not had any business dealings with Vick since its relationship with the player expired two years ago.
Whatever the reasons, Vick’s endorsement worth is withering badly. In 2005, Forbes magazine listed the quarterback at No. 33 on its annual list of the 100 most-powerful celebrities, placing him ahead of Jennifer Aniston, Julia Roberts and Prince. His yearly salary as a football player and a corporate face was placed at $37.5 million. His Q rating – how advertisers measure the value of pitchmen and women – seemed bulletproof. In the latest Forbes’ Celebrity 100, Vick is not listed.
The question now: will Nike be the next to shed Vick?
When Bryant faced rape charges, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nutella quickly abandoned the Los Angeles Lakers player while Nike maintained ties a bit longer. Nike and Bryant eventually parted company but that separation only lasted two and a half years. Still, Nike also is seen as a company that taps into an endorser’s “street cred,” using edgier campaigns to grab younger consumers, say sports marketers.
“Nike tends to give those guys a longer leash,” Carter said. “But Vick knows what to do with that, apparently.”
Indeed, unlike drunken driving or a nightclub shooting, the current charges against Vick may carry more bite with fans and corporations, Carter said. The indictment alleges that Vick and three others sponsored – at Vick’s Virginia home – a dogfighting venture that included gambling along with the buying, training and transporting of dogs for secret canine bouts.
“Unfortunately, we go numb these days when we hear from Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” Carter said. “But this case is different. Number one, animal cruelty is something no one will tolerate. Number two, you have the underbelly of possible gambling. Number three, you have the strength of advocacy groups. They aren’t going away.”
In June, the Humane Society of the United States wrote a letter to Nike president and CEO Mark Parker asking the shoemaker to drop Vick. Today, the organization renewed that demand and said it would extend the same request to other companies that pay Vick as a pitchman, like Rawlings. (Rawlings did not immediately return a call seeking comment). Humane Society president and CEO Wayne Pacelle acknowledged that targeting endorsements is a tactic with teeth.
“That was a logical maneuver for us,” Pacelle said. “We’re ever mindful that there’s a larger cultural milieu that’s dragging people toward dog fighting for some reason. The idea of Vick making this appealing for young people is another reason for us to try to choke off endorsements.
“The indictment is a turning point in the case and in the interaction between us and the NFL and Nike,” Pacelle added. “There’s no punting this, no hiding. They need to take action or they’re going to embarrass themselves.”
As NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell steps up discipline against players who run afoul of the law, or who even dent the league’s image, corporate America is taking keen notice. But that push will not cause a reduction of celebrity endorsements despite their inherent risks, say sports marketers.
“The discussion that’s been going on for a long time is how to reflect corporate concerns that extend to contractual arrangements. And that’s been done increasingly (through morals clauses),” said Hinchey of the Bonham Group. “But I don’t see it really affecting endorsements in general from sports people.”
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Susan Stribling agreed that the era of celebrity hawkers is not waning due to the missteps of some athletes.
“I don’t have a crystal ball but that is probably unlikely,” Stribling said. “We’re looking for people who are going to be connected to our brand. We’re looking at them from a big-picture standpoint. It’s less about any sort of speculative issue … on something that could happen down the road.”