Anytime a draft hopeful asks if going to a certain team would boost his endorsement potential, NFL agent Molly McManimie always answers the same way.
McManimie says it’s a factor, just not the biggest one.
A player’s position matters most. Mediocre starting quarterbacks are often more recognizable to fans and more appealing to corporations than some of the NFL’s premier linemen.
How well a player performs on the field is also critical, as is his star quality and charisma. The best pitchmen deliver punch lines as smoothly as they do passes.
Somewhere behind all that comes playing for a glamour team in a major market. While Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers could play in Siberia and still be coveted endorsers, most players do benefit from big TV audiences and proximity to corporations and major media outlets.
“There are more opportunities in New York or Los Angeles because there’s more businesses, more media and more people,” said McManimie, an agent with Las Vegas-based Caric Sports Management. “That’s a definite advantage, but no matter what, your position and your play has to merit getting those types of deals.”
McManimie’s assessment offers insight into what was at stake for heralded Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence on Sunday when the previously winless New York Jets stunned the heavily favored Los Angeles Rams. Not only may the Jets have lost the chance to select Lawrence in next year’s NFL draft, they also may have damaged the presumptive No. 1 overall pick’s hopes of maximizing his endorsement potential.
Even though Jacksonville and the Jets have identical 1-13 records, a weaker strength of schedule gives the small-market Jaguars the edge in the NFL’s race to the bottom. Jacksonville needs only to lose its final two games of the season against Chicago and Indianapolis to clinch the No. 1 overall pick.
For all the absurd talk of Lawrence returning to Clemson for his senior year to avoid playing for the star-crossed Jets, sports business experts say that New York is actually a favorable landing spot from an endorsement perspective. All eyes would be on Lawrence if he goes to the nation’s biggest market and revitalizes a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in a decade and hasn’t reached the Super Bowl since Joe Namath in 1969.
Those same sports business experts say Lawrence would have to perform even better to garner similar endorsement money in Jacksonville. While there’s no state income tax in Florida, the Jaguars do not play in one of the nation’s top 40 media markets, nor do they dominate their metropolitan area to the same extent as small-market peers Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay.
“Generally I think the market doesn’t matter that much, but in this case it’s such a big dichotomy between the two spots,” said Bob Dorfman, executive director of San Francisco’s Baker Street Advertising. “Obviously New York is the biggest media market in the U.S., if not the world, and he’d be going as a savior. You’re probably talking about millions of dollars difference in terms of endorsement potential.”
It’s a testament to Lawrence’s prodigious talent, distinctive long-haired appearance and likable sense of humor that corporations might be willing to bank on him before he proves himself in the NFL. Dorfman describes Lawrence as “one of the hottest commodities to come out of college in years” and says that the quarterback’s marketing clout dwarfs other recent No. 1 picks.
A record-setting passer who led his Georgia high school to a 52-2 record and a pair of state championships, Lawrence arrived at Clemson in 2018 with considerable hype. The ballyhooed five-star recruit overtook Kelly Bryant as Clemson’s starter four games into his freshman season and quickly blossomed into one of college football’s premier quarterbacks.
In 2018, Lawrence became the first true freshman quarterback to start for the national champion in 33 years, demolishing Alabama in the title game. He has thrown 88 touchdowns and 16 interceptions at Clemson and has the Tigers back in national title contention once more this season.
Lawrence now has a following of 634,000 on Instagram and 137,000 on Twitter, more than any current Jets or Jaguars quarterback. He has used his platform to speak out on causes that mattered to him this year, launching a GoFundMe to help people impacted by COVID-19 in March, speaking out against racial injustice in May and spearheading a college football player empowerment movement in September.
The social media following that Lawrence has built will make him more appealing to businesses no matter what NFL team lands him.
“More and more brands are focusing less on how large the market is and more on how large the following is socially,” said Eric Boyd, a marketing professor at UCF. “Sponsors are after staying top of mind if they’re an existing brand or building awareness if they’re a new brand. Eyeballs are going to be very important to sponsors, whether that’s on TV or on social media.”
Still, even in a social media-driven world, the New York market has advantages over somewhere like Jacksonville. Think of the widespread fame Mark Sanchez achieved after four modestly successful seasons as the Jets’ starting quarterback from 2009-2012.
He was a presenter on the Tony Awards. He endorsed Nike and Pepsi. He landed a modeling spread in GQ Magazine. Now a few years removed from his playing days, he’s still in the public eye as an ESPN analyst and a contestant on Fox’s “The Masked Singer.”
“A quarterback can have opportunities anywhere, but clearly New York opens more doors than Jacksonville does,” said Mark Conrad, director of the sports business program at Fordham University.
Does a quarterback need to play in a major market to attract endorsements? Of course not. Look no further than Mahomes, Rodgers or Peyton Manning as proof.
Can a quarterback play in a major market yet receive minimal marketing love? Certainly. Advertisers aren’t exactly busting down doors to work with Sam Darnold (New York Jets), Jared Goff (L.A. Rams) or Mitchell Trubisky (Chicago Bears) these days.
Ultimately, sports business experts say that playing for a high-profile team in a major city like New York and Los Angeles can still magnify the attention that a star athlete receives.
There are more national TV games. There are more corporations nearby. There’s more major media outlets. There are even more organic marketing opportunities if a player goes to a swanky club or restaurant or attends a party or an opening to a film.
“If you’re Patrick Mahomes in Kansas City, companies are going to make it work,” McManimie said. “But if you’re Trevor Lawrence and you’re just trying to find your footing in your first year, you’re going to be more desirable in New York.”
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