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Sports Business

Vick Signing Is Risky Business

Real football doesn't begin for three weeks, but the Philadelphia Eagles have already pulled off one incredibly risky play. Or so you'd think after the Eagles announced on Aug. 13 that they had signed Michael Vick to be their backup quarterback.

Vick comes to the Eagles with a ton of baggage. Just last month, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell granted conditional reinstatement to the league's once highest-paid player, who had been out of the NFL for two years after serving 18 months in prison for running a dogfighting ring.

No doubt, some Eagles sponsors are wringing their hands about whether that unimpressive résumé could rub off even slightly on their brands. And like most NFL franchises the Eagles have plenty of such sponsors, including Canon (CAJ), Budweiser (ABI.BE), Gatorade (PEP), MasterCard (MA), Staples (SPLS), and US Airways (LCC). In an especially rich deal, NovaCare Rehabilitation years ago bought the naming rights to the team's training facility. The Eagles play in a football palace named Lincoln Financial Field, a deal that is costing the insurer Lincoln National (LNC) nearly $140 million through 2022.

That's a reasonable concern, but probably a needless one. If the history of sports teaches anything, it's that fans don't blame sponsors for the misdeeds of players on the field—mostly because they don't blame the players themselves. At least, not for long.

So far, Eagles sponsors have remained almost totally mute about the team's surprise signing. And what they are saying seems phrased to underscore one point: If you're angry about this, don't be angry at us.

"We have a strong commitment to the Greater Philadelphia region, which includes a long-term agreement with the Philadelphia Eagles for stadium naming rights to Lincoln Financial Field," Lincoln National said in a statement released Friday, Aug. 14. "We have no role in the Eagles operations, including personnel decisions."

Did Sponsors Know Vick Would Be Hired? Sports marketing experts are divided on whether the Eagles would have spoken with sponsors about the possibility of signing Vick before reaching a decision. "Given how much money is at stake, and the smartness of the parties involved, I'd be very surprised" if a sponsor such as Lincoln National didn't know ahead of time, said Andrew Bergstein, associate director of Penn State's Center for Sports Business & Research.

Or maybe not. "Professional sports teams are in the business of winning, first and foremost. It's rare that one would consult with their business partners on matters that are tied to the field of play," says Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships Inc., a Boca Raton (Fla.)-based marketing firm, who has represented NFL teams—but not the Eagles—in naming-rights deals.

Shortly before the dogfighting scandal broke, Vick had signed a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons; he also had had sponsorship deals with companies such as Coca-Cola (KO), EA Sports (ERTS), and Hasbro (HAS). The deal he signed with the Eagles calls for him to be paid $1.6 million this year, with another $5.2 million if the team picks up his option for a second year.

There will surely be some fallout. But the blowback might not be as bad for the Eagles and their sponsors as some expect. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the activist group that has been among the most unyielding critics of the fallen player, scorched Vick in a statement posted on the group's Web site Friday. It read in part: "PETA and millions of decent football fans around the world are disappointed that the Philadelphia Eagles have chosen to sign a man who hanged dogs from trees, electrocuted them with jumper cables, held them underwater until they drowned in his swimming pool, and even threw his own family dogs into the fighting pit to be torn to shreds while he laughed." Significantly, though, PETA has not called for picket lines at the stadium or boycotts of sponsors.

Reputation Repair In Philly, reaction among fans has been mixed. The blue-collar city has a hard-as-nails reputation—after all, fans there once booed Santa Claus at a football game. But Philadelphia fans also love their comeback stories—anyone remember Rocky Balboa?—and they have supported such bad-boy athletes as onetime Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens in the past. So it is hard to imagine that most won't eventually pull for Vick if he helps the team's chances to get to the Super Bowl.

So far, Vick's handlers have made the right moves toward repairing the player's tattered image. At a news conference in Philly, he spoke with what seemed to be sincere regret. And he presumably will do the same on Sunday during a scheduled interview on 60 Minutes. Even that sit-down has been tinged with controversy, though. CBS sportscaster James Brown did the interview, not one of the show's regular news correspondents. That has some wondering whether the show is going easy on the fallen QB.

In the end, the Eagles and their corporate sponsors are hoping that sooner rather than later fans will put the Vick controversy aside and get down to the business of rooting for their team. It's happened many times before in professional sports. In 2000, for example, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor after police had charged him and two companions with murder in a stabbing incident outside an Atlanta bar. The affair was a huge embarrassment to the NFL, which fined Lewis $250,000. It took Baltimore fans several years to forgive, but they did—especially after Lewis won the Most Valuable Player award in leading the Ravens to the Super Bowl title a year after the scandal.

These days, Lewis is not just a football player; according to his Web site he has sponsorship deals with outfits such as Under Armour (UA) and EA Sports.

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