Questions linger about Steelers QB's marketability
NEW YORK – By Sunday night, Ben Roethlisberger could be in rarefied company as a three-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Yet even if he joins the likes of superstar Tom Brady and Hall of Famer Troy Aikman, marketing experts say the Steelers QB probably won't overcome his off-the-field notoriety — including two sexual assault accusations — and pick up the flurry of endorsements NFL champs typically enjoy.
"You don't build back trust with a one-game performance, even if it's the Super Bowl," said Bill Glenn, senior vice president of the Dallas-based sports-business firm The Marketing Arm. "I'd be surprised if there's a long line outside his agent's office even if he wins MVP."
Roethlisberger has had a minimal presence in advertising since he was accused in March of sexually assaulting a 20-year-old college student — the second time since 2008 that he faced assault allegations. Georgia authorities declined to bring charges, but he received a four-game suspension at the start of this season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy.
His sturdy play since his return, particularly in the playoffs, has won back the hearts of some Pittsburgh fans who had soured on him. But nationally, according to marketing experts, his image remains tarnished, and he needs more time to rehabilitate it.
"The best thing Mr. Roethlisberger can do is have a very quiet week off the field and a very loud week on the field," said Kevin Adler, CEO of the Chicago-based sports consulting firm Engage Marketing.
Even with a championship, Adler said, "there's a significant percentage of corporate America that would a still be a little gun-shy.
"But with good game and a quiet offseason, there's an opportunity to develop a maturation of his brand in the future."
The challenge facing Roethlisberger is starkly illustrated in the so-called N-Scores which the Nielsen Co. compiles to rate athletes' endorsement potential based on their appeal, name recognition and other factors. His score has plummeted from above 140 in 2008 to 24 in the wake of the assault cases; by comparison, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers' score is 39 and Peyton Manning's is 262.
A comparable rating system run by The Marketing Arm — the Davie Brown Index — shows Rodgers ahead of Roethlisberger in endorsement potential and trust, even though the Steeler star is better known.
Chris Anderson, a Marketing Arm spokesman, said Roethlisberger's trust levels were on par with celebrities such as Snoop Dogg, Allen Iverson and Kim Kardashian.
John Sweeney, a professor of sports communication at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism, noted that Roethlisberger — even pre-scandal — was never in Manning's league as a pitchman.
He won deals to represent a barbecue sauce, a Pittsburgh auto dealership and a beef jerky brand, although that company dropped him last year. He also remains on the roster of athletes signed by Nike to wear its gear, although Nike confirmed it hasn't used him in recent advertisements.
"When people talk about marketability with Ben, how far is he going to fall anyway?" Sweeney asked. "He's not a huge player in the huge sponsorship market, so there's not as much that's threatened."
Sometimes, there's a marketing niche for athletes with edgy reputations.
Rick Burton, a former chief marketing officer of the U.S. Olympic Committee and now a sports marketing professor at Syracuse, cited the NBA's quirky Dennis Rodman and hot-tempered former soccer star Eric Cantona as examples.
"These athletes with controversial images sometimes end up in demand because they have the capacity to break through the clutter," Burton said. "But I don't think Roethlisberger wants to be an anti-hero. ... I don't think he wants to go down the 'bad boy' route."
Burton suggested the Steelers quarterback may have different advantage.
"He actually may be more affordable, because he's in recovery mode, recovering his brand, his reputation," Burton said. "Companies may look at him as a lot cheaper than if Peyton Manning was winning the Super Bowl."
Roethlisberger himself, during the run-up to Sunday's game, has tried to deflect talk about his suspension and off-field problems.
"I want to be the guy people look up to," he told reporters in Dallas. "I want to be that kind of husband, father and grandfather someday if I am lucky enough."
Say what he will, the spotlight stays on him. A video of his outing Tuesday night, at which he treated his offensive linemen to dinner and drinks at a barbecue place and (badly) sang Billy Joel's "Piano Man" tore up the Web on Thursday.
Roethlisberger's agent, Ryan Tollner, didn't respond to a request for comment on the marketability issue, made through his firm, Irvine, Calif.-based Rep 1 Sports Group.
The firm's website says the marketing portfolio assembled by Tollner for Roethlisberger "generates millions of dollars per year, with creative deals such as Big Ben's BBQ Sauces, Big Ben's Beef Jerky, a T-shirt campaign, memorabilia arrangement and profitable website."
Among the NFL's legion of female fans, many aren't yet ready to give Roethlisberger a clean slate.
"I don't care if he scores seven touchdowns — he doesn't deserve a single endorsement," said Erin Matson, a vice president of the National Organization for Women. "If companies were to partner with him as a result of this game, they would see an enormous backlash."
Anna Holmes, a sports fan who founded the women's-interest website Jezebel.com, said she was unsure she would even watch the Super Bowl because of Roethlisberger.
"There would be a bad taste in my mouth to seeing him on the screen," she said.
A die-hard Chicago Bears fan, writer Veronica Arreola, said she wouldn't even pick Roethlisberger for her fantasy team.
"I don't think on-the-field performance redeems off-the-field behavior," she said. "As a feminist and a mom, I would never buy a Roethlisberger jersey or anything for my daughter. ... He has not come off as remorseful at all."