Collegians couldn’t match pros’ endorsement deals

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel answers questions following a spring NCAA college football practice at the school's indoor practice facility, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Bryan-College Station Eagle, Stuart Villanueva)
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel answers questions following a spring NCAA college football practice at the school's indoor practice facility, Tuesday, March 5, 2013, in College Station, Texas. (AP Photo/Bryan-College Station Eagle, Stuart Villanueva)

Money and Manziel are often mentioned together these days.

When talk turns to insurance policies or trademark infringement lawsuits involving the Heisman Trophy winner nicknamed Johnny Football, debate inevitably ensues about the fairness of NCAA amateurism rules that prevent college sports stars from cashing in on their fame. But putting aside those arguments for a moment leaves a simple question: Just how many dollars is a player like the Texas A&M quarterback missing out on?

Imagine a hypothetical world where suddenly athletes are able to sign endorsement deals while maintaining their eligibility. Manziel could be shooting commercials in between spring practice workouts this week.

Companies would need to determine just how much these guys would be worth as pitchmen. According to several marketing experts, the value even for a player as dynamic and well-known as Manziel would not rival that of pro stars.

“I don’t think it’s an issue where the sky’s the limit,” said David Carter, the executive director of the USC Marshall Sports Business Institute.

The biggest drawback, Carter and others say, is that even if the NCAA rules ever changed, the athletes would still have to deal with fans’ perception that college is different from the pros.

Manziel himself acknowledged the same challenges when asked what a player would do if faced with that option.

“I think it’s a tough situation,” Manziel said, “and that’s why it’s how it is today.”

Manziel is an interesting test case because of his unique appeal. The first freshman to win the Heisman, he toils in the high-profile SEC and has that catchy nickname.

For a sense of Manziel’s allure, consider the TV ratings for January’s Cotton Bowl on Fox – an Aggies victory over Oklahoma that turned into a blowout in the second half. It was watched by almost 12 million viewers, up nearly 42 percent from the previous year’s Kansas State-Arkansas matchup. Most telling, the audience was significantly bigger than for two of the BCS bowls, the Orange and the Sugar.

“Generally speaking, it’s more the records and the performance on the field as a team than it is the individuals that play,” said CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus, whose network has the good fortune of owning rights to SEC games. “But periodically a player will emerge, and Johnny is the latest one to emerge.”

A top NFL player can hope for endorsement deals starting in the $1 million to $2 million a year range, said Jack Plunkett, CEO of market research firm Plunkett Research. One challenge for a college player in trying to match that in this imaginary scenario is he wouldn’t be the only one suddenly available to sponsors.

Someone like Manziel may be the brightest of stars, but the market would also be flooded with other – not quite as popular, but not as expensive – athletes.

But the broader problem is that while fans may feel bad that athletes aren’t paid amid the money swirling around college sports, they still may experience discomfort at those same guys pitching a car or beverage.

“My gut feeling is people don’t want to see college athletes endorsing products,” Plunkett said.

Steve Rosner, a partner at sports marketing firm 16W Marketing, said many companies might consider college kids too young to be a good fit for many things they’re trying to sell.

“A lot of categories who might be interested in him might be looking for someone with more experience in life in general,” he said.

What would likely work best is the so-called “tools of the trade” – apparel, sneakers, equipment. In fact, those are generally the kinds of deals top draft picks sign before they play in a league. And for those players, while their value is partly based on their potential as pro athletes, it also reflects their fame as college stars.

Carter speculated that a college athlete who signed on with too many companies would invite ridicule from alums wondering if shooting commercials was a distraction.

For now, this is all truly hypothetical, since the NCAA has made clear its commitment to amateurism.

But, as Carter said, “it’s fun to talk about in theory.”

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