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Sunday, December 7
 
Vick still most marketable player in NFL

By Darren Rovell
ESPN.com

Members of "Team Vick" spent hours in a boardroom Thursday plotting the next off-the-field steps for their high-profile client. Surprisingly there was a lot to do, despite the fact that Michael Vick is making his first start of the season for the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Vick's marketing group is closing in on a deal with a fast-food company and they are discussing the possibility of inking yet another national endorsement deal in the coming weeks.

Michael Vick
Vick
"And we're still getting calls," said Patrick McGee, vice president of marketing for Octagon, which represents Vick.

Vick's absence -- he broke his leg in an Aug. 16 preseason game -- has slowed some of the momentum, but Vick is still considered the most marketable player in the NFL and is one of the few players in the league that will earn more than $1 million this year in endorsements.

"His marketability went from hot to lukewarm as a result of being off the field, but closing out the season with some great individual highlights could bring him back where he was," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a sports marketing firm. "It's a good time for him to be back considering the holidays are a big selling period."

That Vick's first start of the season isn't coming until Week 14 against Carolina hasn't deterred sales of his Falcons jersey. It is still the NFL's best seller this season and his Virginia Tech retro jerseys are in such demand that two sports apparel companies are peddling them. Nike, Coca-Cola and Hasbro haven't stopped running commercials featuring Vick and his absence from Atlanta's lineup has not affected sales of Electronic Arts' Madden 2004 video game, which features Vick on the cover. The game sold more than two million copies in its first three weeks on the shelves and sales are up from last year.

No company is banking on the three-year veteran more than Nike, which is featuring the 23-year-old along with San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Terrell Owens in a futuristic commercial where the two look like, and compete against, robots.

Michael Vick's new shoes is in stores Dec. 17.
Vick's return to the lineup comes just in time for the launch of the Air Zoom Vick, a cross trainer which hits stores Dec. 17. It's the first time the world's highest-grossing athletic shoe company is using a football player to sell a non-cleated shoe since 1989, when Bo Jackson pitched the Air Trainer SC.

"Basketball is the sport that has fit the shoe-selling model best," said Tony Ambroza, a brand manager for Nike. "But Michael is the type of athlete that can translate from the cleats to the street. He's appealing because he exceeds the boundaries of football."

Vick's strong arm and quick moves on the field made him the perfect candidate for Powerade's "Very Real Power" campaign last year. In the spot, Vick is seen throwing balls to receivers in practice, with the receivers getting blown back by the force of his throws as they catch the ball. Vick then hurls a ball a couple hundred feet from the middle of the field to the nosebleed seats, as the viewer likely asks, "was that real?"

"We felt he was really someone who can change the game," said Bea Perez, vice president of sports marketing for Coca-Cola, which owns Powerade. "Someone who can do things on the field that have never been done before."

Vick is now currently being featured in Coca-Cola's Football Town U.S.A. spot, though future plans with the beverage company are unclear with his contract running out in June 2004.

Interestingly, while many of the league's top players do commercials for league sponsors, Vick's representatives have been actively pitching non-league sponsors to do endorsement deals with their client.

"We feel that companies can invest in the league or they can invest in Michael Vick," McGee said. "And he's talented enough that he can really transcend the sport as well."

Vick hasn't been seen in a Falcons jersey in the Powerade, Coca-Cola and Nike spots because those companies don't have team rights like league sponsors Gatorade, Pepsi and Reebok.

While a recent survey of adults, conducted by Knowledge Networks, revealed that 6 percent of those polled believed that Vick's endorsement of a product could influence them to buy it, Vick's marketing credibility among those under 18 is most likely higher.

After years of having Peyton Manning as its endorser, Hasbro tabbed Vick to endorse its Nerf footballs for the next two years.

"We were looking for the most electrifying performer in the NFL and Michael certainly stands out," said Kevin Fortey, marketing director for Nerf.

A commercial with Vick pitching the Big Play Football, a ball that has a screen so the quarterback can draw plays on it, have been shown on the Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon. Fortey said Vick's endorsement helped as sales peaked when the commercial first hit the airwaves.

Electronic Arts picked Vick because he's one of the league's best players and loves playing video games, according to Melvin Lenzy, product marketing manager for the Madden game.

"Plus, Michael's the ultimate playmaker," said Lenzy. "Everyone wants to try to see what it's like to play like him."

Of course, some are blaming the people at Electronic Arts for Vick's status this season. Injuries or bad fortune followed after the three previous cover athletes -- Eddie George, Daunte Culpepper and Marshall Faulk -- appeared on the cover of the Madden game.

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com.






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