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Bears in the shadow of '85 team; Marketing potential isn't in the ballpark of Ditka and Co., but current players could carve their own niche of fame with a Super Bowl run

Chicago Tribune, December 24, 2006

By Mary Ellen Podmolik

Rex Grossman's inconsistency on the field this season has drawn the ire of armchair quarterbacks, former players and on-air personalities--all who have called for the Bears to bench him.

And yet, even in those moments when he has appeared in danger of losing his starting position, the marketers have been watching and cultivating him, while waiting for the team's playoff appearance.

Such is the power of the quarterback position, marketing experts say, that if Rex Grossman becomes a Super Bowl quarterback, he also could become Rex Grossman, celebrity endorser.

But regardless of whether the Bears get to and win the Super Bowl, there will be no repeat of the marketing dream team that was the 1985 championship season Bears.

Two decades after Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Walter Payton, William "Refrigerator" Perry and Mike Singletary became national celebrities--each a larger-than-life character in his own way--the Bears are a different team and sports marketing is a different business.

So even with a Super Bowl win, only a few players, including perhaps Grossman, have a chance to join the one high-profile Bear, Brian Urlacher, and secure postseason national advertising deals, experts say.

"This team is going to be compared to [the 1985 Bears] and that's a problem," said Nova Lanktree, an executive vice president at sports management agency CSMG Sports, Chicago. "The 1985 team, every personality had distinctiveness."

Indeed, there was Ditka, the nail-eating coach; McMahon, the punky QB; Walter "Sweetness" Payton, the human highlights reel; and Singletary, the only guy in America who looked as tough as Ditka. Then of course there was the Fridge, and don't forget the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Part of the reason for this season's seeming lack of star power is that no Chicago team could compare to that one. But it's also true that this year's team is younger than the one in 1985. The Bears will send seven players to the Pro Bowl; the 1985 team had nine Pro Bowlers. The current team has had less time to generate the off-field name and face recognition that is critical to endorsements.

"You've got to be articulate, good-looking, friendly and warm," said Steven Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations Inc. of Manhasset, N.Y. "A lot of people don't know the faces under the helmets."

There also have been changes in sports marketing as it has matured and multiple cable sports channels have evolved.

"There are fewer people seeing any given event at any given time," said John Fraser, executive vice president at Element 79 Sports, a Chicago-based agency that lists Gatorade among its clients. "So the opportunity for as much water cooler talk is limited because overall ratings are down. It used to be Monday Night Football and Sunday and that's it. That alone makes a big difference."

Every step he takes toward the Super Bowl puts Grossman in a more enviable marketing position, industry executives say. Marketers--and consumers--love the story of a person who was close to being sacked and turned around his performance. And indeed, General Motors Corp. recently put out feelers about Grossman to Players Inc., the marketing arm of the NFL Players Association, said Dexter Santos, vice president of player marketing.

Reebok, which already has a marketing deal with Grossman, also is keeping close tabs on his performance.

"Winning brings on an added aura," said Todd Krinsky, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Reebok. "You don't have to come into the league and have this incredible personality to be marketable. But if you don't, you have to win and be a leader."

Not just play on field

But Grossman has a few knocks against him right now and it's more than his sometimes-spotty performance.

"He's kind of a quiet guy," said Jim Andrews, a senior vice president at IEG Chicago, a sponsorship marketing agency. "He really hasn't established a personality, a strong image with people and that detracts in his case. He's not the brash loudmouth like McMahon or the Hollywood guy like [New England Patriots quarterback Tom] Brady. He is pretty dry. That doesn't make him a bad guy, but those things do matter to a marketer. They want someone who is just going to charm the pants off [their] customers. But if he really steps up and leads the team to victory, that would be a very attractive story."

The gold standard for the quarterback endorser these days is Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, whose combination of on-field performance, boy-next-door looks and charitable endeavors have given him big endorsement contracts from MasterCard, DirecTV, Sprint and Gatorade. An August survey of sports marketing and media executives by SportsBusiness Daily ranked Manning the most marketable player, followed by Brady.

Game of chance

The risks to marketers of hitching their star to a professional athlete are well known. One misstep not only damages the athlete's reputation, but can affect any company with an association. That became evident most recently this month with Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson, who has a high-profile nickname but also a misdemeanor arrest on gun charges and the connection to the Chicago nightclub fight in which his friend and bodyguard was killed.

The money a player can make off the field varies widely, and is determined by whether it's a local, regional or national gig as well as the player's emotional connection with fans. Typically, fees for a few hours' work at a local appearance range from $2,500 for a lesser-known player to more than $25,000 for a star. Local marketing endorsement deals top out at about $100,000, but national endorsements can pay $250,000 to as much as $1 million for a superstar linked with a large national company.

Among the Bears, much has been written locally and nationally about rookie Devin Hester in recent weeks. Industry insiders say his performance is among many that companies are watching.

Before Hester captured attention for returning punts and kickoffs for touchdowns, the rookie who generated the headlines was Reggie Bush, last year's Heisman Trophy winner and now a running back with the New Orleans Saints. He inked his first major endorsement deal last April with Subway restaurants and followed that by signing with PepsiCo, Hummer, Adidas and EA Sports.

"It is a lot harder for a Devin Hester to catch up marketingwise to a Reggie Bush because the projection of what a guy is going to do is enough to provide the marketing momentum. They come in with all the hype and exposure so there's some immediate equity there," Santos said.

Marketers say Hester has to sustain his good performances to generate buzz among consumer product companies. Perhaps more important, he has to become part of the offense to get more playing time and more attention. In FedEx Corp.'s weekly voting for air and ground players of the week, which are announced during NFL broadcasts on Sunday, the nominees are limited to quarterbacks and running backs.

Wide receiver Muhsin Muhammad taped a commercial with Grossman that promoted Pro Bowl voting, and marketers say he is likely to be tapped for more work by companies. The players' group has seen a significant increase in interest in him, Santos said.

"He's totally dignified, articulate, almost like a statesman," Lanktree said. "Every time I've seen Muhammad, I say, `Oh my god, this guy is the essence of sportsmanship and class.'"

None of the Bears is expected to instantly attain Urlacher's status as one of the most marketable NFL players. Urlacher's aggressive defensive play and steely glare have made him the team's most prominent player. His star is only expected to rise, marketers say, and a paternity suit has had no effect on his marketability.

Urlacher's popularity was proven in a sweepstakes that Glaceau's Vitaminwater ran as part of an Urlacher-centered marketing campaign that will be extended into next year. More than 130,000 entries from the Chicago area were sent in for the chance to go fishing with Urlacher, said Rohan Oza, senior vice president of marketing for Glaceau.

Marketers also would like to tap the talents of coach Lovie Smith during the off-season, though they are unsure of his interest. Smith's appeal goes far beyond the seasoned professional image he projects.

"You don't have the risks of a 24-year-old," Andrews said. "We're pretty sure Lovie is at home with Mrs. Smith on Saturday nights. He's not out going crazy. You're not taking risks with him."