Tuesday, July 31, 2007

And that’s the way it is -- Michael Vick, done in the corporate marketplace

Since Friday the remaining companies connected to Michael Vick once considered the most marketable athlete in the National Football League and one of sports most prized spokespeople appears finished as an athlete companies want associated with their products. It has been two weeks since Vick was indicated on allegations he was an active participant in an illegal dogfighting business, where according to the 18-page indictment Vick and his cohorts bred dogs where breeders allegedly fought pit bulls for purses as high as $26,000 and some losing dogs were electrocuted, drowned, hanged or shot to death.

The stigma attached to the unproven allegations have made Michael Vick a marketing pariah. Kobe Bryant may have recovered from allegations he assaulted a woman in Boulder, Colorado four years ago, the Duke lacrosse team has been exonerated of all charges relating to the charges three members of the team had rapped an African-American woman, but Michael Vick’s greatest challenge may lie in not proving his innocence but in repairing a persona all but destroyed.

“This is as bad as it gets,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco endorsement expert who publishes the quarterly Sports Marketers Scouting Report in a Kansas City Star report

“There is something about messing with pets that strikes the wrong chord in America. In the grand scheme of things, is it worse than a DUI, is it worse than rape allegations? … But there is something about this which rubs everybody the wrong way, and it stands out more than a DUI, which seems like every other player in sports is getting these days.

“And the allegations of the cruelty and how these animals were killed make it even worse.”

It would seem (at least according to most media reports) the Michael Vick who at one time had corporate partnerships with Coca-Cola, Hasbro and Kraft among others, isn’t the man those and other companies believed he was. His likeness adorned the popular Madden video game. The “Michael Vick Experience” Nike commercial was all the rage. His jersey No. 7 was among the top-five sellers since he joined the Falcons as the first overall draft pick in 2001.

“I don’t think there has been a guy in modern times that has fallen so far,” said former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt in a Kansas City Star report.

Vick met with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Falcons owner Arthur Blank in April and assured both men he had no connection whatsoever to the charges he is facing. If the allegations are proven, not only will Vick be guilty of a heinous crime, but he will have lied to Goodell (creator of the NFL’s no nonsense player conduct code) and Blank (who in December 2004 invested $130 million and made Vick the face of his billion dollar NFL franchise).

“No matter who it is, when somebody lies to you, that does not make you feel good,” Brandt said. “The commissioner asked him, and Michael Vick said he had nothing to do with it. But they’ve got witnesses and photographs and everything that say he was completely untruthful with the commissioner.”

“He’s lost the backing of public opinion,” said David Archer, a former Falcons quarterback and radio analyst for the past five years. “There are a lot of blue-collar people out there wondering how in the world can you have all the money, the fame and everything that goes along with what he had, and throw it away or potentially throw it away.”

“We’ve got to walk a mile in his shoes a little bit,” Archer said. “He comes from a little different culture than probably I did or you did from a middle-class family. He didn’t have that as a kid, and some of the lessons you learn from your parents, he probably didn’t get and had to learn some of those things on the streets.

“I’m not trying to make excuses for him, but there are some things that need to be considered as to why he made some of the decisions he made from his associations of people to decisions he made business-wise. There might be some answers there. They might not be the answers we want to hear, but they can lend some credence as to why he’s done some of the things he’s done.”

Archer told The Kansas City Star he never saw anything in Vick’s off-field activities that might have even remotely suggested he was capable of being an active participant in what he stands accused of.

“He doesn’t go out a lot, he’s not at the clubs, you don’t see him in Vegas,” Archer said. “He just likes to play video games. He plays himself on Madden. He knew I played (for the Falcons), and we talked a number of times. He was forthcoming to me asking me about things, and I’ve enjoyed working with the guy.

“I’m saddened about what’s happened and hope it’s not going to damage him the way I think it probably will.”

Friday, Nike and Reebok began to distance themselves from an athlete who up until a few short weeks ago had been played a key strategic role in their marketing NFL plans. Reebok is the NFL’s uniform license and Vick has a personal endorsement contract worth millions of dollars.

“Nike is concerned by the serious and highly disturbing allegations made against Michael Vick and we consider any cruelty to animals inhumane and abhorrent,'” Nike announced Friday (at one point according to a New York Times report Nike had received more than 165,000 Michael Vick related e-mail’s). “However, we do believe that Michael Vick should be afforded the same due process as any citizen in the United States, therefore, we have not terminated our relationship.”

“We are very pleased that Nike has today signaled it has a zero tolerance policy for athletes who may be involved with staged animal fights and other forms of malicious animal cruelty by indefinitely suspending its relationship with Vick,” Wayne Pacelle, president and chief executive of the Humane Society, said in a statement.

Reebok NFL licensee agreement permits the company to sell NFL authentic and replica uniforms with the numbers and names of NFL players. Reebok pulled all Michael Vick related merchandise Friday. Nike and to a lesser extent Reebok were pressured into distancing themselves from Vick by animal rights groups including the Humane Society and PETA.

"Reebok is as disturbed as everyone else is about the allegations and did not feel there was any other choice but to suspend the sale of his jersey," Reebok spokeswoman Denise Kaigler said.

The actions of corporate America mirror those of the NFL, which earlier this week halted sales of Vick's jersey on its NFLshop.com web site.

"We have suspended sales of Vick-related merchandise on nflshop," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed. That includes jerseys, autographed balls and other memorabilia.

McCarthy said it's "not appropriate under the circumstances" to sell Vick items.

Over the weekend according to an Associated Press report: Upper Deck has removed all Michael Vick autographed memorabilia from its online store and will remove the indicted quarterback’s trading card from NFL sets that are scheduled to be released in October.

"Of course we appreciate the fact that Mr. Vick is innocent until proven guilty, but the allegations alone have resulted in an outpouring of very strong emotion within our organization and among the collecting community," Kerri Stockholm, Upper Deck’s director of marketing, said in a statement. "We believe collectors will agree and support this decision as being the best course of action for our football business."

Monday, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP made a very different statement – pointing out what everyone seems to have forgotten, in America you are innocent until proven guilty.

R.L. White, president of the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the Atlanta Falcons quarterback has been vilified by animal rights groups, talk radio and the news media and prematurely punished by his team and corporate sponsors.

"If Mr. Vick is guilty, he should pay for his crime, but to treat him as he is being treated now is also a crime," White said at a news conference. "Be restrained in your premature judgment until the legal process is completed."

Taking the advice of his legal team for the most part Vick has been quiet not offering any comment on the chargers he is facing. Monday afternoon Vick appeared on WVEE-FM, calling the radio station from Virginia.

"Hopefully I'll see y'all again," Vick said in a taped interview with host Porsche Foxx, who added that she was advised by Vick's legal team not to ask questions about his case. "It remains to be seen, but that's what I'm working on.

"I just want to thank all my fans and all my support and all the people that are praying for Mike Vick and are in my corner right now. It's a crisis situation for me, but I'm going to get through it and I feel, by the grace of God, that's the only way. I believe in the outcome at the end, and that's why I put my faith in the man upstairs. It pains me not be down there right now because I know so many people want to see me and I want to be there."

As for his future with the Falcons, Vick told the radio station, "Hopefully, under the right circumstances, I think it can work. I know I put the city through a lot, my owner, Arthur Blank, who I love, sincerely; I put him through a lot. It hurts me to put him through this situation.

"A lot of things would have to be worked out for him to put his faith and trust back in me. But if I had the opportunity, if it wouldn't be a problem, I'd like to come back, under the right circumstances."

The problems Vick faces if he returns to the NFL – he hasn’t lit the football field up over the last few NFL seasons. Though he became the first quarterback in NFL history to rush for 1,000 yards in 2006, Vick completed just 52.6 percent of his passes, and his passer rating of 75.7 ranked 20th. And if Vick is forced to sit out the entire 2007 NFL season he will have lost an entire season and that isn’t going to make him a better NFL player. More importantly if he has any hope of restoring his image he’ll have to prove himself on the football field.

Its well worth noting Kobe Bryant’s resurrection was largely due to how well he played for the Lakers – Kobe’s off court success in recent years would have never happened if Kobe wouldn’t have delivered on a basketball court. If Vick sits out the entire 2007 season other NFL’ers will begin to position themselves as marquee players. And if Vick is going to use his on-field skills to help restore his shattered image a year away from the gridiron will make it next to impossible for Vick to have any foundation for that return.

“In terms of his playing career, it was on the downturn a little bit,” Dorfman said. “After that (NFC title) game, he seemed to fall apart a little bit. Atlanta never figured out the best way to use him. His star was starting to fade in terms of on-field performance.”

“The other thing that has compounded it is other players have come up who seem very marketable,” Dorfman said. “Reggie Bush is going to be all over the screens this year. Obviously, Peyton Manning has finally gotten the Super Bowl ring and is more valuable. Matt Leinart is going to see a lot of work … Vince Young. ... With those guys, there are places advertisers can turn. It’s not like they’ve got to use Michael.”

Put in simpler terms – Michael Vick will be yesterday’s news and in Michael Vick’s case damaged goods at best.

“Kobe Bryant had the advantage of playing basketball, a more marketable sport,” Dorfman told The Kansas City Star. “You’re not wearing spikes, you’re wearing street shoes that kids wear and buy. There is a more direct correlation between athlete and product.

“Having a company like Nike that sticks with you and stands by you helps. Nike would do the same with Vick until he’s proven guilty. They won’t use him at all, and when his contract expires, they can drop him or start to activate him a little bit depending on how things go.

“But first, the charges would have to be dropped. He would have to be very contrite in public, apologize profusely, donate a lot of money and time to the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) or some other animal-rights organization, and maybe over time try to get back. And on the field, he has to lead Atlanta to postseason success.”

“Michael has written a new script for how not to make your endorsees happy,” said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.

Monday, Tony Taylor who Thursday appeared in a Richmond, Virginia courtroom with Vick and two other men charged in the same indictment (the men all entered innocent pleas Thursday) changed his plea from innocent to guilty. Taylor will be sentenced on December 14 (nearly three weeks after Vick’s scheduled November 26 trial date). According to various media reports Taylor is going to testify that Michael Vick financed the dogfighting enterprise. According to Monday’s court filing: Vick supplied almost all of the money used to run the operation and gamble on the fights, while Taylor and the two other men charged in the case typically split the winnings. Taylor left the operation after a disagreement with the others in 2004, court papers said.

Daniel C. Richman, a professor at Columbia Law School and a former assistant United States attorney, told The New York Times the plea agreement as an important step for the investigation.

“A witness like this is the only way to really get inside information without tracking the crime while it is happening,” Richman said in the New York Times report. “This is the government’s way of signaling to the other defendants that it has significant evidence and that they should seriously consider pleading guilty themselves.”

As bad as things looked for Vick before Taylor changed his plea from innocent to guilty Michael Vick’s legal team are going to be forced to spend the four months leading to the start of the November 26 trial in full damage control. Forget about restoring Vick’s image, right now Billy Martin (Vick’s lead attorney) will be forced to spend a great deal of time trying to create not only the belief Vick isn’t capable of what he is accused of but that he is a decent human being. In the era of instant communications – Michael Vick has all but been convicted and sentenced in the court of public opinion and that will make it next to impossible for Michael Vick to get a fair trial, something afforded to every American.

At this point Michael Vick’s focus should be on helping his legal team prepare the best possible case – the days of corporate America’s interest in working with Michael Vick are finished and are never likely to return.

For SportsBusinessNews this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited and used in this Insider Report: The Kansas City Star, The New York Times, The Atlanta Journal Constitution and Bloomberg News

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