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Few ads in Vick's future

His legal troubles will probably bring an end to his marketability, even if he does eventually return to the playing field.

August 21, 2007|Greg Johnson | Times Staff Writer

The "Neuter Vick" T-shirts that appeared on EBay shortly after Michael Vick's legal troubles became public knowledge captured the burgeoning and sometimes ugly backlash against the NFL star.

On Monday, the beleaguered Vick agreed to plead guilty to federal charges in connection with an illegal dogfighting ring that was operating on property he owns in rural Virginia. But his public image as the talented Atlanta Falcons quarterback already was badly damaged.

Last month, when he was indicted, Vick's marketing strength dissipated as his troubles grew. The NFL told the former No. 1 draft choice to stay away from training camp. Rawlings unceremoniously dumped him as a pitchman for inflatable footballs and other sporting goods. Upper Deck pulled his newest trading card. Reebok halted sales of his No. 7 Falcons jersey. And Nike delayed the introduction of its Air Zoom Vick V shoe.

Monday's guilty plea, legal observers said, is designed to head off additional federal charges after three co-defendants pleaded guilty and indicated they would testify that Vick helped execute dogs that lost fights. That last allegation may have been the end to his marketability, given the repercussions of the societal taboo against animal abuse.

But given the rush to the exits by Vick's existing corporate partners, sports marketing and public relations specialists suspect that the former Virginia Tech star's days as a product pitchman were already over.

"I expect all the corporations to run away from him," said Ronn Torossian, president of New York-based 5W Public Relations. "His brand is finished. It's over with.

"Today is the sign that Michael Vick is untouchable for corporate America. The best PR advice I would have for Michael Vick is to work out hard and try to stay in shape because if he's going to make any money it's going to be on the field, not off."

Other athletes, most notably Kobe Bryant and Ray Lewis, offer proof that it's possible for athletes to weather off-the-field legal crises. Neither athlete was found guilty, but both were hurt off the field by the allegations because, in the sports marketing arena, corporations strive mightily to protect their carefully honed images from even the faintest whiff of scandal.

Nike stuck by Bryant after he was charged with felony sexual assault in 2003, but didn't feature him in a major advertising campaign until 10 months after the charges were dropped in 2005. That campaign succeeded, an advertising professor said at the time, because it portrayed the Lakers star "as a real person who has made mistakes."

And, last summer, Bryant snared another deal that put his image on the packaging for NBA 07, a Sony video game.

Lewis was accused of murdering two men in Atlanta in 2000, but the case fell apart and never went to trial. Lewis continued to excel on the football field and the following year was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXV. Though Lewis wasn't awarded the then-obligatory trip to Disneyland, he subsequently signed marketing deals with athletic shoe and apparel company Reebok and video game giant EA Sports.

Vick's guilty plea, to be entered next week, came as the athlete faced a Nov. 26 trial date in Richmond, Va. The plea could lead to a prison sentence, and, depending upon a separate investigation by the NFL, a possible lifetime ban.

"I don't think any major marketers are going to bite, no pun intended," said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based advertising agency executive who compiles the quarterly Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "It's not like marketers don't have any other choices. There are a lot of good, young quarterbacks out there like Vince Young and Jamarcus Russell. It's not like everyone is going to be waiting for him to come back to sell a pair of shoes."

The damage already done to Vick's reputation was evident in a recent survey completed by Dallas-based Davie Brown Talent, which measures celebrity appeal among athletes and performers. Consumer awareness of Vick increased noticeably during July -- but for the wrong reason -- as media reports detailed the dog-fighting scandal. Scott Sanford, a senior client director with the firm, attributed the rise to "people who didn't know him at all before he was brought up on charges."

In addition to winning back football fans who appreciated Vick's distinctive playing style at Virginia Tech and in Atlanta, Vick must combat ill will among consumers who know him only as the guy who got caught up in the largely hidden and gruesome world of dog-fighting.

Those interviewed for this story agreed that it is conceivable Vick could salvage his football career -- if he isn't found in violation of the league's tough new personal conduct code, keeps in shape during a likely prison stay, once again gets hired by an NFL franchise and, ultimately proves his value to sports marketers by repeatedly leading a team deep into the NFL's postseason.

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