Marketing vs. Market.
Which plays more into an athlete’s overall off-field success?
It’s a question that has been debated for decades, and now, on the eve of the NFL Draft, it has risen again, albeit in an era where the physical location of an athlete matters far less than it ever has before.
As we look to this year’s event in Cleveland, football’s shiniest position—quarterback, of course—is more than front and center. With no less than five signal callers projected to go among the top ten picks called by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, field generals will rule the night.
They include the highly decorated throughout their college careers—Trevor Lawrence (Clemson), Justin Fields (Ohio State) and Mac Jones (Alabama)—as well as those whose success was less national but still impressive—Zach Wilson (BYU) and Trey Lance (North Dakota State).
However, with every big name at a big position, there comes big risk. Will they boom or bust on the field and off?
For every Phillip Rivers, there is a Joey Harrington. For every Peyton Manning, there’s a Tim Couch. For every Ben Roethlisberger, a Johnny Manziel. On and on they go.
Will this year’s class be any different?
Well, we can start at the very top, the first two picks and see different approaches already, which has already led to some unique brand talk as two storied student-athletes make their transition to the NFL gridiron.
Number One Since Day One
At the top is the All-American, national championship winning Lawrence. He is the prohibitive top pick, which is held the rebuilding Jacksonville Jaguars, one of the smallest markets in the NFL. However, going into the draft, the only pick repped by Alan Zucker at Excel Sports Management has taken the bold path of aligning himself with both traditional brand partners as well as the disruptive.
Tuesday, Lawrence announced an expansion of his deal with Topps to include custom designed NFTs, not of his on-field actions but more a reflection of his personality. The six-piece collection was created in collaboration with Trevor’s brother and sister-in-law, professional artist duo Chase and Brooke Lawrence, who also drove much of the 50-card set announced in March that quickly sold out.
The NFTs include five open-edition cards sold at $200, with the opportunity to receive an exclusive Chrome card, and a 1/1 auction of a signed Superfractor card and signed Artist Proof card from Chase and Trevor. The store, open for 24 hours, used the Mintable blockchain.
See our story Coming to a Partnership Near You: NFTs & Brands
“The amazing response to the Trevor Lawrence card set and his status as a transcendent figure in football makes the issue of these NFTs a natural for us,” said Jeff Heckman, Topps’ Global Director, New Business Ventures. “As was the case with the sold-out cards, Chase and Brooke bring their unique talents and connection with Trevor to their creations, and we are pleased that the lower price point will make their work accessible to many more fans and all level of collectors.”
That move to the progressive side of endorsements followed a cryptocurrency deal with FTX‘s Blockfolio (that includes having his signing bonus paid in crypto) along with much more traditional deals with Gatorade and adidas.
Dreams coming true. pic.twitter.com/carr82Fp58
— Trevor Lawrence (@Trevorlawrencee) April 28, 2021
“We believe that Trevor is the future of football and we think that crypto is the future of finance,” Blockfolio’s COO Sina Nader told Forbes’s Chris Cason. “Trevor represents a lot of the promise and potential of football at the highest level, and we think that crypto represents the same thing at the highest level of finance.”
On the Gatorade deal, Lawrence showed he takes a 360-degree view to his deals, telling CNBC, “It has been a staple in my sports journey since I was a kid, so I couldn’t be more excited to join the brand. I don’t just look at the financial aspects of it, but do I really fit with companies?…I always have to ask myself, ‘Is this me?’ So Gatorade was an easy choice.”
What’s not an easy choice for Lawrence and his team is knowing which brands always stick, and which are trying to ride the wave of being number one, as the work begins trying to restore the Jaguars to national viability and notoriety. Heading into the draft it seems like Excel has punched the buttons that fit so that Lawrence brand resonates and grows regardless of the snap count in Jacksonville.
No more avoiding the spotlight
That proactive approach is somewhat different than what Wilson has been doing with his marketing team as he readies for what could be a path to another rebuilding team, this one in a major market, the New York Jets. Wilson, who signed with Brian Ayrault of William Morris Endeavor has announced deals with Nike, Traeger Grills, Panini and Aptive Environmental but has shied much more from the spotlight than Lawrence.
— Nike Football (@usnikefootball) April 20, 2021
While some may say that fits a QB coming from a conservative Mormon background, the bright lights of Broadway will come calling. And if Wilson sees success on the field, the Wilson camp’s methodical march down field for brand success should bring even more opportunity…when that time is right.
So does it make more sense for Wilson to wait, or to try and cash in before the first kickoff? Does market size matter as much any more, or does a small market, where Lawrence will be headed, play in the favor of a more aggressive individual brand play?
Winning wins out
“While market size may have mattered more 10 or 15 years ago, the reality is today the athlete has the ability to distinguish himself regardless of where he plays,” explains Scott Rosner, Professor of Professional Practice; Academic Director, M.S. in Sports Management Program, School of Professional Studies at Columbia University.
“Team success matters more than market size in the NFL,” continues Rosner. “Look at two of the brightest faces in the NFL today—Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers—and they play in two of the smallest markets (Kansas City and Green Bay), but their teams have won. This is a big part of the NFL equation, because winning brings with it national TV exposure and the chance to build your brand through those highly visible broadcast windows, which are consistently among the most-watched shows in America.”
Like Wilson appears set to do, Mahomes and Rogers took a slower path to marketing stardom, building their personal brands that mirrored on-field success.
It is not that dissimilar from a path of another successful New York quarterback, Eli Manning, who rode a similar pick from a school with midlevel success (University of Mississippi) to world-level endorsements and fame with the New York Giants. His success was boosted exponentially by the multiple Super Bowl rings he helped bring to Big Blue.
If You Can Make It There…
Rosner points out that the New York market may still be the one outlier, where access in real-time to decision makers can still be an added brand boost, albeit not as critical as it was in the days of New York icon Joe Namath.
Namath came to New York with a style and flamboyance unseen before for the NFL, and rode both his arm and his personal style to parallel success for, ironically, Gang Green’s only title now more than 50 years ago.
Assuming the Jets do select Wilson, both team and player have plenty of examples of other New York QBs who rode into the City That Never Sleeps amid a hurricane-force hype machines only to flameout (see Sam Darnold, Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith, etc.). Given the blessing/curse nature of New York fan passion, the cautious route in Gotham seems like the smart path to take.
So who will win the marketing day of the top picks? Is it a question of short-term planning vs. long-term vision?
It really comes down today to comfortability as much as marketability, with the hope that the NFL success on the field raises all branding ships with it.
While we love the hype and the storytelling, brands in these fluid times are looking much more for ROI and shared vision than ever before.
Lots of lessons learned in the past on the overspend upfront, with the crash-and-burn to follow, and this year’s two projected top picks, in markets small and big, reflect parallel strategies. Who will win out?
If things go as planned for both teams, we may get our answer in a Jets-Jags AFC Championship Game match-up in a few years. For now it is going to be an interesting study in style for two dueling QBs and their teams.
Featured photo via @manusina_art