In January 2012, Tim Tebow was king of the world. Over the previous fall, as a second-year quarterback, he led the Denver Broncos on a string of six improbable, increasingly narrow victories. The crowning moment came on Jan. 8, in the opening round of the playoffs, when his 80-yard touchdown pass in overtime capped an upset of the Pittsburgh Steelers. It was peak Tebow: Poster-boy looks, Christian devotion, and athletic prowess wrapped into one American hero.
That month, according to the marketing research firm Repucom, Tebow equaled Michael Jordan and David Beckham as a celebrity endorser. More than three-quarters of the American public knew his name and face, which put him at the level of Joe Namath. Only Oprah Winfrey and Kate Middleton held more influence out of the more than 2,300 celebrities in Repucom’s database. Tebow also ranked in the top 20 for trust, trend-setting, and aspiration—a measure of how much survey takers wanted to be like him. At 24 years old and with a short professional record, he had established a major presence in the American mind.
It’s been mostly downhill from there. In March 2012, the Broncos signed Peyton Manning at quarterback and traded Tebow to the New York Jets, where he became backup to Mark Sanchez. A year later, the Jets released him. In June of this year, the New England Patriots signed him to a contract with no guaranteed money. Two months later, they cut him. Tebow is currently a free agent hoping to find an NFL team that wants him. “I will remain in relentless pursuit of continuing my lifelong dream of being an NFL quarterback,” he wrote on Twitter the day he was released.
There is, at least publicly, no backup plan. Tebow has passed on offers from the LA KISS, an arena football team part-owned by the eponymous rock band, and from the Moscow Black Storm, a Russian team that was reportedly ready to pay him $1 million for two games. So what are the prospects for a young, famous failure?
“A guy like this has got plenty of options available to him if he’s unsuccessful getting back on board with an NFL team,” says Paul Smith, the chief executive of Repucom. Smith’s company is the keeper of the Celebrity DBI, a composite score of fame and appeal based on weekly surveys of a representative sample of 1,000 Americans. Repucom’s numbers show that Tebow is as famous as ever. Last week, 85 percent of respondents knew of him, an elite level of awareness he shares with Peyton Manning and LeBron James. That fame keeps his DBI score (78.32) in the top 10 percent, also next to Manning (79.56) and James (78.23).
In the other dimensions that Repucom measures, however, Tebow has begun to slide from his January 2012 peak. He now ranks 356 out of 3,122 as an endorser (next to Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck); 390 in trust, 233 in influence, 525 as a trendsetter, and, most tellingly, 696 in aspiration. Who wants to be out of work?
These are still strong numbers, Smith notes, but the options for Tebow have changed. It’s no longer possible, he says, to “slap Tim’s face on a cereal box and watch the boxes fly out the door.” Gone, too, are opportunities for big spending campaigns with Gatorade (PEP) or Nike (NKE). Instead, Smith says, deals are more likely to come from companies looking to gain from Tebow’s reputation as a man of principle: banks, financial advisers, and other professional services.
There is also, no doubt, a spot for Tebow in front a camera at ESPN (DIS) or one of the other sports networks now crowding the cable box. (There is always room on the dais for one more jock in a suit.) Tebow, of course, may have no interest in bantering on NFL Primetime or vouching for the expertise of TD Ameritrade (AMTD). “He might decide to go and build schools in the Philippines,” says Smith.
Whatever he decides, Tebow’s future employers will prize another quality he’s demonstrated—reliability. It’s not likely that nude photos of Tebow will surface any time soon. Or that he will take a swing at a paparazzo. ”He hasn’t had a misstep,” says Smith. “Despite all the taunting, particularly by the New York media, and all the opportunities to spit the dummy, he’s held it really tightly together.”