Commentary

Urlacher's star will continue to rise

Retired icon's imprint on Bears remains and his profile might even grow larger

Updated: August 27, 2013, 2:50 PM ET
By Melissa Isaacson | ESPNChicago.com

Brian UrlacherAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherFor the first time since 2000, the Bears don't have Brian Urlacher manning the middle of the defense.
Brian Urlacher is not going anywhere.

While his departure from the Bears and subsequent retirement from football in May after 13 seasons leave an undeniable hole in the hearts of his fans and a physical void on the field, Urlacher's imprint on the team remains, according to his former teammates. And his public profile can and should, say marketing experts, only grow larger.

Although Urlacher's physical intensity, trademark smile and playful gloating are no longer seen and heard at Halas Hall, there are already quiet comparisons being made to rookies such as Jon Bostic and Kyle Long, who looks and laughs like the presumptive future Hall of Famer.

Beyond that, veterans Charles Tillman and Lance Briggs say, there is a certain quality associated with the Urlacher era that did not disappear simply because he is no longer in uniform.

[+] EnlargeHope Stahl
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallBrian Urlacher's appeal to fans likely will last long after his playing days.
"We've all learned from those we played with and those who came before us," Briggs said. "And as those guys move on in their lives or their football careers, the things they leave behind stays with us. ... [Urlacher] laid his greatness out here every snap he played. [No.] 54 is someone who transcended the game and the small-town kid from Lovington, New Mexico, is a hallmark for us."

As for the laughs, "yeah, he's missed," Tillman said. "I wish he was still out here. But we're still having fun. I don't think one person can take all the fun away."

As expected, the Bears proclaim that as much as they loved and respected Urlacher, they believe in the next-man-up mentality. As an organization, they never promoted the idea that Urlacher was "the face of the franchise."

"From a marketing standpoint, we've always very much focused on team, and Brian was one of the biggest proponents of that. He never wanted to be out front," Bears vice president of communications Scott Hagel said.

Hagel backs up the contention by pointing out that the last time an individual player was featured on the team's media guide was 1998, when Curtis Conway was pictured diving for a reception. But Steve Dupee, an executive vice president with GMR Marketing, a global sports and entertainment firm headquartered in Milwaukee, points out that there is also a sound strategy behind that.

"From a marketing standpoint, that's pretty standard," Dupee said. "Was [Urlacher] a huge name and the face of the franchise for a long time? Absolutely. But teams these days are getting a lot smarter in not focusing on driving one athlete. The only sport where you really see that is the NBA, and a lot of that is driven by some of the issues athletes have had over the last several years and the trouble you can get into if you focus on one player."

Either way, the Bears will not have to worry about ticket sales or television ratings falling off with the departure of any one player or players.

"When you're talking about those kinds of barometers, it's a tough argument that the Bears will miss him," said Irving Rein, a communications professor and sports marketing expert at Northwestern and author of "The Elusive Fan."

"The NFL is a monstrous operation of which the Bears are an instrumental part," Rein said. "The greater part of their marketing, if not the team, is their heritage, their legend. People have an investment in the Bears as part of their lives, so players come and go and certainly they miss them, but they don't lose season-ticket sales when they leave."

According to the NFL, Urlacher's Bears jersey was the top-seller in the league in 2001, 2002 and 2006, fell out of the top 25 in 2009 and was No. 10 last season.

"People are still going to buy Urlacher jerseys," Hagel said. "He's a historical figure on the club, so you don't lose that. ... [But] you've seen a ton of 15s [Brandon Marshall] the last year and you're going to see more Tillman, Briggs, (Julius) Peppers. You still see (Walter) Payton and (Dick) Butkus. Fans have their own special attachment to players, both present and past."

Though television cameras will no longer have the middle linebacker's smile to focus on between plays, there's always Jay Cutler's every expression change, and Urlacher will hardly disappear.

Urlacher

Basically what needs to happen post-retirement, even as a sports broadcaster, is for him to expand his visibility to other platforms. Get more interviews on late night talk shows, sports shows, morning programs where you reach more audiences. That's what these guys need to do to grow their awareness if they want to be aggressive in marketing and promoting themselves.

-- Q Scores executive vice president Henry Schafer on Urlacher
To the contrary, instead of the sweaty guy behind the face mask, Urlacher will arguably be getting more exposure as a Fox Sport 1 analyst and panelist on its "Fox Football Daily" show. Whether this was part of some grand marketing strategy, it was certainly smart in keeping Urlacher -- who has had endorsement deals or appeared in commercials for such major companies as Sega Sports, Nike, McDonald's and Coca-Cola -- in the public eye, the experts say.

"Guys who retire from the game and are not seen or heard from, obviously their endorsement potential follows the same path," Dupee said. "If [NFL Network analyst and Hall of Famer] Deion Sanders would have gone away when he retired [in 2000 and again in '05], would we still be talking about him? Probably not. So I think it's a great move for Brian to continue to have a presence."

But how important is it not just for Urlacher's overall credibility but for his marketing future that he receives positive reviews as an analyst? Opinions differ.

"If he's considered by the public as ineffective or over the top, then his commercial value deteriorates as well," sports marketing expert and Harvard Business School professor Stephen Greyser said. "But he doesn't have to be the star. They're not asking him to do what he did [on the field]."

"One question will be how comfortable is he?" said Jeff Nelson, director of analytics for Chicago-based Navigate Research, a sports and entertainment marketing research firm. "[Michael] Strahan [former Giants defensive end, Fox analyst and co-host of the morning talk show "Live! With Kelly and Michael"] is a perfect example of someone who was made for being in front of the camera. He has an ease and affability even some top-flight entertainers don't have and he had that on the Giants, where we haven't seen that from Urlacher.

"But if he can show flashes and keep improving and just show he's good on TV, he's going to test well with people, he's going to have that likeability and that can open up more opportunities."

The Q Scores Company quantifies that likeability, measuring celebrity awareness and popularity, and last week released its report on Urlacher.

Not surprisingly, Urlacher's popularity and awareness ratings skew heavily toward male football fans, said Henry Schafer, Q Scores' executive vice president. But the former Bear scores well across the board.

In a scientific survey (1,800 respondents nationally representative of the U.S. population across all age groups), 48 percent of males 18 and older (not necessarily sports fans) were aware of who Urlacher is. That compares, Schafer reported, to 38 percent for the average sports personality (taken from a group of 100 notable athletes across all sports). Urlacher's Q score -- a percentage of people familiar with the personality who say that he or she is one of their favorites -- is 15 percent among adult males, just slightly above 14 percent for the average sports personality.

Among women, his Q score is 6 percent. "They know him," Schafer said, "but they're not particularly emotionally connected to him, so he is below average [13 percent] there." Where Urlacher gets his best marks is among male football fans with 78 percent in awareness and a 19 percent Q score.

"The Q score is a very strong indicator of the emotional connection between the personality and the population of sports fans," Schafer said. "The higher the Q score, the higher the impact, the stronger the credibility, believability and trust the personality has with consumers."

Urlacher is comparable in his scores with football fans to second-year Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson and third-year San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and among recently retired players, to Ray Lewis.

None of the above, however, is in the upper echelon, which starts with Michael Jordan among retired players and continues with the currently active commercial darling Peyton Manning.

"Michael Jordan is the high-water mark. No one is reaching his altitude," Schafer said.

Among the general population, Jordan's awareness is at 87 percent with a 46 Q score. Manning has 92 percent awareness among football fans and a 39 Q score. Although Urlacher is not likely to ever reach those levels, he can increase his scores, Schafer said.

"Basically what needs to happen post-retirement, even as a sports broadcaster " he said, "is for him to expand his visibility to other platforms. Get more interviews on late night talk shows, sports shows, morning programs where you reach more audiences. That's what these guys need to do to grow their awareness if they want to be aggressive in marketing and promoting themselves.

"You've got to be visible, personable, have the mindset that this is what you want to do. That comes across to the consumer as someone compatible as a spokesperson."

Several of the experts used former Bears coach Mike Ditka as an example of someone who works hard at being visible, and at 73, is still going strong as an analyst and businessman as well as a top pitchman and recognized sports personality.

The question is whether Urlacher even wants to expand his visibility. Even an iconic player and Hall of Fame quarterback such as Joe Montana, someone with a positive public image, is not rated as a potentially top endorser in part because he has not marketed himself aggressively and thus has allowed himself to fade in the consciousness of the average consumer.

But what is Urlacher's motivation?

Hard to say, as his agent had no response to questions about future plans.

"What Brian made in football dwarfs what guys like Mike Ditka and Jim McMahon made in their careers," said David Schwab, senior vice president at Octagon, a global sports agency and marketing firm. "Any coach or athlete during that time had to work much harder to stay relevant [in retirement]."

Urlacher's average salary in his last five-year contract, which included a $6 million signing bonus, was $8.7 million.

"I think you're going to find that not only Brian but the next generation of athletes, are not going to work as hard post-career as the prior generation," Schwab said. "I think he's going to spend time around football with his camp in New Mexico and probably just live the good life. I don't see him as a guy out there every day pushing a product."

But while even Hall of Famers can fade into the background, there will likely always be opportunities for Urlacher in Chicago. According to a 2012 Nielsen Co. poll, Urlacher is the city's most marketable athlete, ahead of the Bulls' Derrick Rose, with his "N Score" gauging awareness and likability among the public behind only Jordan and Ditka.

"The longer he's not playing, the more Bears fans may miss him on the field and put him on a higher and higher pedestal," Nelson said. "And the other thing is, if you look at the Bears right now, I'm not sure they have a no-brainer, first-choice endorser. Obviously people have tried to dissect Jay Cutler's reputation over and over and why he's not more popular but that's almost beside the point. He's not a guy whose face you necessarily want to put next to a product [though Cutler has been in national NFL Shop commercials]. ... Past players might be more appealing in the Chicago market than anybody who's currently with the team and now, Urlacher's one of the first ones who come to mind."

Also helping Urlacher stay in the fold is the fact that his break from the Bears -- while contentious at first for Urlacher -- likely won't keep him from re-joining the Bears family someday.

"We have nothing but respect and admiration for Brian and embrace him as part of the legacy of the team," Hagel said. "He was the one who said 'I don't want to play in another uniform.' That's pretty special. He's a Bear and in the McCaskey family, you're always a Bear."

Melissa Isaacson

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for espnW.com, ESPN Chicago and ESPN.com. The award-winning writer has covered Chicago sports for most of her 31-year career, including at the Chicago Tribune before joining ESPN in 2009. Isaacson has also covered tennis since 1986.

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