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Starter near deal with Romo

The Starter brand is close to completing a five-year deal with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo that could pay him as much as $10 million, which would make him the highest-paid athletic footwear and apparel endorser in the NFL.

The news of the Romo negotiations rippled through the sports industry last week, drawing attention both for the size of the deal and the re-emergence of a buyer in a down endorsement market for athletes. Iconix Brand Group, which bought Starter from Nike last year, has publicly stated a strategy to reinvigorate the brand by signing major sports stars to endorsement deals and building its league and team sponsorship and licensing business.

“Right now we have no comment on that,” said Tara Levy, public relations manager for Iconix.

Neal Seideman, who left his job at IMG as senior vice president of licensing late last year to become Iconix vice president of business development, said there was no deal completed between the company and Romo. He would not comment further.

R.J. Gonser, a marketing agent in CAA Sports’ football division who sources said is negotiating the deal for Romo, did not return phone calls to his office in St. Louis.

But sources said Reebok, which previously had an apparel and footwear contract with Romo, had passed on its right to match the Iconix deal.

“We had the right to match,” confirmed Tom Shine, senior vice president of global sports marketing for Reebok. “I think [Romo] is a very nice young man, and I wish him the best.”

“It is an exorbitant contract,” Shine added of the Starter deal. He declined to comment further.

The record for an NFL apparel and shoe deal is believed to be the reported five-year, $5 million Adidas deal with New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush. NBA players have the highest shoe and apparel deals in team sports, with LeBron James’ reported seven-year, $90 million deal being the highest.

Industry sources said Starter was interested in signing Romo as an endorser because he is the quarterback of the high-profile Cowboys, who like Starter have a blue-and-white star as their symbol, and because of his romantic link to celebrity Jessica Simpson.

As Cowboys QB, Romo is a sports celeb.

Starter does not have a license with the NFL that would allow Romo or any other NFL player to wear Starter on the field, and the company has not held any talks with the league about acquiring such a license, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said. The lack of a relationship with the NFL also means that Starter could not use images of Romo in an NFL uniform in advertising.

Neil Cole, CEO of Iconix, has indicated the company may be seeking licenses with sports teams or leagues. In November 2007, when Iconix announced it had agreed to buy Starter from Nike in a $60 million cash deal, Cole said, “We are working on a multifaceted strategy, including signing some major professional sports figures and growing our team sports business, which is Starter’s heritage.”

Starter, which was founded in 1971, has had several different owners, declared and emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, has had licenses in the past with the NBA, NHL and NFL. Starter had an NFL license in the 1990s through the 1998 NFL season. Starter has been licensed to several manufacturer/wholesalers selling primarily to Wal-Mart.

Last month, on a conference call with Wall Street analysts, Cole said, “We are working to convert our Starter brand into a direct to retail license with Wal-Mart and we have several exciting growth strategies in the works including major athletic endorsements and license(d) team sports product.”

Levy would not answer questions about Cole’s comments or whether Iconix planned a relaunch of the Starter brand. Starter’s Web site, starter.com, displays the company’s logo, the words “The Season Begins Soon,” and a link to buy Starter clothing through a Wal-Mart Web site.

Stu Crystal, vice president of marketing and consumer products at MLS, who worked at Starter for eight years in the ’90s, said there is still equity in the brand. “They’ve kept up a presence in sports,” he said. “They have kept up a presence with advertising at stadiums and places like Sports Illustrated, so to a consumer, they still are a viable sportswear brand.”

Staff writer Terry Lefton contributed to this report.

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