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Peyton Manning: NFL's most valuable pitchman

Baltimore Sun, February 04, 2007

By Abigail Tucker

Over the course of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning has been paid to: flick his little brother's earlobe, confess an affinity for cooking shows, hatch out of a football, cheer for deli workers, utter the word "doggone" on national television, meditate and wear a toupee.

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is willing to wear a wig and moustache in an ad for Sprint.

He's done it all cheerfully, and why not? Along with his $98 million, seven-year contract with the Colts, Manning reportedly has the most lucrative endorsement setup in the NFL, pitching for companies such as Sprint, DirecTV and MasterCard even though he never so much has appeared in the Super Bowl until now.

And even if the Colts lose today's game against the Chicago Bears, experts say Manning's advertising stats probably won't take a hit because his marketing allure stems more from his personality than his performance. Manning has emerged as one of those rare sports icons whose commercial success outguns his athletic record, and his pop-culture appeal continues to grow regardless of what happens on game days.

"People feel like he's their next-door neighbor," says Todd Krinsky, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Reebok, which signed an endorsement deal with Manning in 2001. "He's one of those guys you know you want to be with for the duration of his career."

"He's really coming into his own as of late," says Steve McDaniel, who teaches sport marketing and media at the University of Maryland. "He's a lead athlete, but he comes across as an Everyman."

And Manning is fast becoming a familiar face outside of the football fan base as he floats, Forrest Gump-like, though the commercial lineup. That he'll finally be center stage in Miami today at the Super Bowl, the advertising industry's finest four hours, will only heighten his profile. His transcendent presence recalls when Joe Namath, years after his Super Bowl celebrity, had become so recognizable to mainstream America that he played himself on an episode of the "Brady Bunch."

Experts chalk up Manning's magnetism not only to his football prowess but also to his charisma, his place in a family football dynasty his younger brother is an NFL quarterback, and his father is a former one and his keen business strategy, which seems unusually receptive to endorsements.

Though his performance on the field is nothing to sneeze at he holds the NFL record for most touchdown passes in a season, he's creeping up on several lifetime records, and he's guided the Colts to the playoffs seven of the past eight seasons Manning lacks the untouchable reputation of dominant endorsers such as Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. (Woods still rakes in much more than Manning, making more than $80 million compared with the quarterback's $11.5 million, according to a recent Sports Illustrated survey). Indeed, at least until this postseason, Manning has been defined as much by high-profile postseason failures as by his passing records and awards.

But as a pitchman Manning reportedly scores bigger than anyone else in the NFL, including the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, with his three Super Bowl rings. He was recently named the league's "most marketable player" by the Sports Business Journal and ranked behind only the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre in another survey that focuses on player recognition.

Manning has built his commercial presence around character rather than chiseled looks or championships, developing an identity as a humble, good-humored and fundamentally decent fellow, according to Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks corporate sponsorships.

"He has this all-American, guy-next-door image," Andrews said. "He's the guy who you want to pal around with. Brady's more of a glamour boy."

Indeed, Manning masquerades as an ordinary fan in some of his more famous commercials, including one for Sprint, where he dons a stick-on moustache and toupee to proclaim the greatness of Peyton Manning and his "laser-rocket arm," and several for MasterCard, where he roots for regular people, including deli workers and deliverymen, like a deranged tailgater.

"He's willing to look kind of silly, a little goofy," McDaniel says. "There are some athletes who wouldn't do that."

His nice-guy aura is enriched by his clean reputation as well as by the public service work he's done for Hurricane Katrina victims and other causes, leading some to dub him the NFL's "ambassador."

Manning's success derives in part from his legitimate acting talent, says Chris Jogis, vice president of US Brand Development for MasterCard, which signed him in 2004 and made him a centerpiece of its well-known "Priceless" campaign.

In his early work for the brand, he shared the stage with other players, including the Giants' Mike Strahan and the Bears' Brian Urlacher, but carried later commercials alone. He has fine comedic timing, Jogis says, and even contributes creatively. In one of his "fan" gags, he was scripted to beg a supermarket clerk to autograph a melon, but then also ad-libbed a request to have a bread loaf signed for his little brother.

"And it turned out to be one of the best lines in the commercial," Jogis said.

Some have speculated that Manning might parlay his commercial personality into further-reaching stardom. For now, though, industry observers are confident that he'll sign lots of the contracts sent his way. Jon Show, a senior staff writer for the Sports Business Daily, says Manning's marketing fame is more a business approach than the result of any innate talent, and that he accepts endorsement deals that other players, most notably Brady, might turn down. Indeed, some sports stars gain fame from their association with a certain product, but Manning's commercial work is so widespread that it's hard to remember all his sponsors.

But any corporation that signs Manning has played its cards wisely, Show says.

"Sprint and MasterCard are not going to slap their brand on anyone who's a risk," he said. "There's no sure thing in sports anymore, but (Manning is) as close as you can get to a sure thing."