In The News

Out Of Sight But Not Yet Out Of Mind

The Wall Street Journal, December 28, 2012

By Mike Sielki

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – At the time, the afternoon of Monday, March 26, seemed the perfect beginning to what promised to be a prosperous tenure in the New York region for Tim Tebow.

At the Atlantic Health Training Center here, five days after they had acquired Tebow from the Denver Broncos, the Jets introduced him at a news conference—the NFL's most popular player now with a chance to play quarterback in its biggest market. The Jets made special arrangements to accommodate more than 200 media members who attended the event, holding it in their field house, lining up rows of white folding chairs in one of the end zones, setting up a podium in front of a black backdrop that was dotted with the team's insignia.

Meanwhile, as Tebow repeated ad absurdum how excited he was to become a Jet, Steve Wymer, the vice president of corporate communication for TiVo Inc., TIVO and Doug Bieter, the company's head of retail sales, were en route from TiVo's corporate headquarters in San Jose, Calif., to Beverly Hills. There, they met with one of Tebow's representatives at the talent agency William Morris Endeavor Entertainment to explore the possibility of a partnership between TiVo and Tebow, an early step in a relationship the two parties later consummated.

Nine months later, that promise has gone unfulfilled. Tebow is about to complete an odd and empty season with the Jets, who are 6-9 entering their finale Sunday against the Buffalo Bills. He's been on the field for just 76 offensive snaps—a contrast from last year, when he orchestrated several dramatic victories for the Broncos, including one in the AFC playoffs—and coach Rex Ryan's refusal to use him as a regular quarterback has hurt Tebow's standing compared with his peers at the position. (Without a touchdown, he hasn't even Tebowed as a Jet.) But his meager playing time also has prevented him from maximizing his marketing and sponsorship opportunities, according to several experts. And they say that though Tebow remains an attractive product endorser, his season away from substantial game action will require him to rebuild his brand by becoming a noteworthy player—i.e. a starting quarterback—again.

"It has been a handicap, no question," said Lee Berke, a sports-media analyst and president of LHB Sports. "From the football standpoint, he has been out of sight. In terms of performing on the field, it hasn't been like the year before. That's an issue. I think he's going to need the opportunity to prove himself again on the field."

By the standards of today's elite professional athletes, Tebow takes modest monetary advantage of his celebrity. He has endorsement deals with five companies: TiVo, Nike Inc., Jockey Inc., SOUL Electronics and The FRS Company, which sells energy supplements. He earns up to $4 million annually from them, according to IEG, an endorsement and sponsorship consulting firm. (Peyton Manning, Tebow's successor in Denver, is the top-earning NFL quarterback pitchman, at $13 million.)

When contacted for this story, four of Tebow's sponsors pledged their commitment to their multiyear contracts with him. SOUL Electronics didn't respond to a request for comment. None of the four companies suggested that Tebow's season with the Jets would cause it to end or change its relationships with him.

It isn't surprising that Tebow's sponsors would stick by him, despite his unorthodox style of play and his inability to beat out Mark Sanchez for the Jets' starting job, said David Carter, a sports marketing professor at the University of Southern California. "They signed on knowing the competition in that market, the position he plays," Carter said. "That's not news to anybody." FRS, in fact, recently released a new packaging design that features Tebow wearing a sleek, silver athletic shirt and football leg pads, poised to throw a pass.

"If anything, we're doubling down on Tim," said Matt Kohler, FRS's chief marketing officer. Kohler did acknowledge that "it would help" if Tebow had played more frequently this season, and Jockey echoed that sentiment in a statement: "We hope [Tebow] gets more opportunities to demonstrate his football skills soon." It's likely he will. The Jets are expected to either trade or release Tebow once the season ends, and there are NFL franchises—the Jacksonville Jaguars, Tebow's hometown team, foremost among them—who would seem willing to give him a shot at being a full-time quarterback again. He's still a topic of sports and pop-culture conversation because he's in New York, said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. But he'll have to play more to remain one.

"Just as the government's heading to a fiscal cliff," Swangard said, "I think Tebow's heading to that marketing cliff where he's got to get some reps or he just becomes another footnote in NFL history."

Tebow declined to discuss whether his wasted season had affected his endorsement power, and just this week, reports that he had in effect asked not to play in New York's most recent game (after coach Rex Ryan had decided to start Greg McElroy at quarterback) appeared to stain Tebow's reputation as an unselfish, supportive teammate. Over a 20-minute interaction at his locker Wednesday with reporters, he said that Ryan had misinterpreted Tebow's reaction to the decision, and he bristled at those who would have characterized him as phony because of his desire to start at quarterback.

"That's what's disappointing," he said. "Your character is who you are as a man, and that's a lot more important. I take that way more serious than I'll ever take a football game."

That refutation, coupled with the perception that the Jets have treated Tebow unfairly by keeping him on the bench, probably reaffirmed one of the major reasons that fans and potential sponsors have been drawn to Tebow and, for at least a little while, will continue to be: his image, through his devout Christianity, as someone of high moral integrity. It provides a baseline of interest in and support for him.

"He can say, 'I'm patient, and that's the way Christians are.' He can talk about humility," said Jay Coakley, a sociologist who has researched the importance of sports in America. "People will hang on with him because he's giving them the messages that reaffirm their beliefs and reaffirm the rationale for their connection with him."

For Wymer, the TiVo vice president, that quality contributed to the company's interest in doing business with Tebow. The market in which Tebow is playing, Wymer said, doesn't dictate the exposure he receives or the discussion he sparks, so the fact that things didn't work out for him in New York is, in a way, irrelevant. "For us," he said, "he sort of transcends whether he's on the field."

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