SBJ/January 30-February 5, 2012/Opinion

Is Tebowmania symbolic of U.S. in 2012?

Most of us love sports because at some point in our lives, an athlete performed an act of such heroic proportions that we became sports fanatics for life. That moment sticks with us forever. These personalities drive the popularity of spectator sports. They keep us watching, attending and debating. Recently, we’ve all witnessed the ascent of one of the most interesting athlete icons of our generation. Tebowmania has swept the nation, crossing over beyond the sports pages and into the mainstream. But is Tebowmania a fad, or will Tim Tebow establish himself as an icon with real staying power?

In spite of his college national championships, his Heisman and his well-known devotion to Christianity, it wasn’t long ago that he was just one of many intriguing personalities in sports. But when he took over the starting job in Denver, and led the team to the playoffs, Tebowmania “went viral.” During the Broncos’s 7-4 run, Tebow averaged 150 passing yards per game. Hardly the stuff that legends are made of.

But he captured our imaginations. Whether it was his fourth-quarter come-from-behind victories or his “Tebowing” postgame posture, everyone was talking about him. An improbable thumping of the defending AFC champion Steelers in the first round of the playoffs sent Tebowmania into the stratosphere. The victory resulted in more than 9,000 tweets per second on Twitter. Tebow finished the season as the No. 11 most admired man in the U.S., with the No. 2-selling jersey in the NFL, and the most popular athlete in America in ESPN’s annual poll.

How marketable is he?

Four key components determine athlete marketability. At BDA, we measure athlete marketability as follows: athlete marketability = (talent + success) + (integrity + charisma)

The first two components are on the field, and are listed first because traditionally they carry the most weight. The next two components express the importance of the athlete as an individual. Brands want to affiliate with talented, successful and charismatic spokespeople who their consumers can trust.

In Tebow’s case, talent continues to be the component most questioned by his detractors. Yet his marketability overcomes talent issues because he is so strong in the other critical areas. He is a winner. Above all, however, it is Tim Tebow the person that makes him so appealing to brands. Countless articles on Tebow produce the same descriptives: humble, charming, wholesome, selfless, hardworking, authentic. Brands today are risk-averse when it comes to endorsement deals. Tebow’s success, combined with his character and personality, make him an extremely marketable athlete.

In an August 2010 article, I wrote about the “Tiger Recession” and expressed my belief that in the wake of controversies surrounding Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Tiger Woods, brands would focus much more on character than ever before. Brands are insisting that their athlete spokespeople demonstrate character and integrity. Tebow’s well-known humility, generosity and selflessness are exactly what brands are looking for in 2012. Perhaps talent and success mean less to brands today than they used to.

Or maybe it isn’t just about Tebow. Perhaps Tebowmania is indicative of America in 2012. People have been kicked around by unemployment, shrinking retirement accounts and disappearing equity in their homes. Tebow has been kicked around, too. In spite of it, he stays focused, humble and faithful. In a way, he represents many Americans trying to fight on in the face of very challenging times. Perhaps we are shifting away from our obsession with wealth and glamour. If the country is indeed moving toward “regular guy” heroes, then Tebow will likely become an athlete icon with real staying power.

Tebow’s outspoken devotion to Christianity makes him polarizing, generally something brands try to avoid. Yet somehow he doesn’t come across as preachy. His faith doesn’t seem to bother Jockey, Nike or FRS, and I think more brands will jump aboard. And Tebow will absolutely need to continue winning to maintain his stratospheric marketability. Regardless of his success, I believe Tebow has established himself as a public figure who brands will have interest in associating with for many years to come.

Bill Sanders (bsanders@bdasports.com) is chief marketing officer at BDA Sports Management and author of the blog “An Athlete Marketing Guy” at www.athletemarketingguy.com.

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