CHARLOTTE — In August, Under Armour plans to roll out its first TV commercials featuring Cam Newton alongside several sports icons, including Tom Brady, Michael Phelps and Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
The sports apparel giant will follow that with a print ad picturing Newton when the Heisman Trophy winner and No.1 pick in last month's draft is in the midst of his first NFL season.
Before he plays a down for the Carolina Panthers, Newton is Charlotte's first nationally marketable sports star since the early 1990s when Larry Johnson of the NBA's then-Charlotte Hornets famously donned a wig and a dress for Converse's classic "Grandmama" ad.
"This market's hungry," said Mike Boykin, executive vice-president of GMR Marketing in Charlotte. "It's starving."
Newton was widely criticized for saying he wanted to be an "entertainer and icon" in an interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King before the draft. He backed off the comment at the NFL combine, saying football was his first priority.
But he already has landed the largest endorsement deal for a NFL rookie, a four-year contract with Under Armour that reportedly will surpass the $1 million-a-year deal that New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush signed with Adidas in 2006. Newton also is expected to sign with GMC to endorse the automaker's SUVs and trucks, according to CNBC's Darren Rovell.
Sports marketing experts say Newton has the good looks, bright smile and engaging personality to become one of sports' top pitchmen. But Newton's smile will go only so far.
Industry leaders say the key for Newton to cash in at the endorsement levels of a Brady, Peyton Manning or Tiger Woods (pre-sex scandal) is threefold: Newton needs to develop as an NFL quarterback, avoid trouble and win.
"Until you've proven yourself as a legitimate player in the league, your credibility as an endorser is not automatic," said Gary Stevenson, who handled the marketing for Hall of Fame quarterbacks Dan Marino and John Elway.
"If I was advising Cam Newton, I'd tell him to maybe do one or two indigenous endorsements with a shoe deal or something like that," added Stevenson, who sold his Raleigh-based On Sport marketing firm in 2007. "But other than that, I'd focus on being the best quarterback I could be and trying not to divert any attention away.
"Because as the No. 1 pick he's going to make plenty of money. ... And if he is successful as a quarterback, he'll have all the marketing opportunities that he could ever dream of."
Carlos Fleming of IMG is advising Newton on his endorsement deals. Attempts to reach Fleming this past week were unsuccessful.
Boykin, who has lived in Charlotte since 2000, says Newton has everything to become the first "mega-star" of a Panthers' franchise that has been faceless for many of its 16 seasons.
Former quarterback Jake Delhomme was a Saints castoff who led the Panthers to the Super Bowl. And though Delhomme did a Bojangles' fast-food restaurant commercial that aired regionally, most people outside the Carolinas couldn't pronounce his name.
Former Panthers Pro Bowler Julius Peppers could dominate games from his defensive end position. But Peppers seldom talked to the media - at least until he arrived in Chicago to play for the Bears last year - and was reluctant to embrace his celebrity.
Steve Smith is the best known among the Panthers' current players. But the veteran wideout is expected to be traded after the lockout ends after indicating he is ready to move on.
"There hasn't been a star, a celebrity with the Panthers that has transcended just good," Boykin said. "Delhomme was good, got them to the Super Bowl in 2003. But if (Newton) has real success, he has all the other things a company would be attracted to - the smile, the good looks, , presence."
Newton, 21, arrives in Charlotte as a household name because of his fame and his notoriety. He led Auburn to a 14-0 record and national championship in his only season with the Tigers.
But he had left Florida under a cloud of controversy following a stolen laptop incident and allegations of academic cheating, and he was at the center of a NCAA investigation last fall involving his father's pay-for-play scheme.
The NCAA censured Cecil Newton but determined Cam Newton was not aware his father had shopped him to schools for up to $200,000.
The allegations did not scare off Under Armour, which had an existing apparel contract with Auburn. Under Armour officials attended many of the Tigers' games and spent time with Newton and his family before beating out Nike for his services.
"We felt very comfortable with the type of people that Cam and his family are," said Matt Mirchin, Under Armour's senior vice-president of sports marketing. "I think there's a lot of things out there that are written. We feel very comfortable getting into business with Cam Newton."
Still, Newton's marketing appeal could be jeopardized if the NCAA finds additional evidence to implicate Newton and sanctions Auburn as a result. That was what happened to Bush, who became the first Heisman winner to relinquish the trophy after it was determined he and his family received nearly $300,000 from marketing agents while Bush played for Southern California.
Patrick Rishe, who writes a sports business blog on Forbes.com, predicted at least two of Bush's five major sponsors (Pepsi, GMC, Subway, Adidas and Red Bull) will drop him because of the controversy, which Rishe believes will cost Bush $20 million to $30 million in endorsement money.
Mirchin said Newton's Under Armour deal included the personal-conduct clause that is standard in such contracts, but there was nothing spelled out in the event Newton is sanctioned retroactively.
A few critics blasted Newton for being a selfish, disingenuous player with a fake smile in the months leading to the draft. But Mirchin doesn't see it.
"Honest to God, I don't believe they know what they're talking about," Mirchin said. "He's just a good kid. He doesn't drink, doesn't smoke. He doesn't run around."
The other knock on Newton was that he was not prepared to run an NFL offense after one year in Auburn's simplistic scheme.
Tom Regan, a sports business expert who teaches in South Carolina's sport and entertainment department, said Newton's on-field performance ultimately will determine his marketability.
"The issue is going to be if he pulls a JaMarcus Russell," said Regan, referring to the top pick in the 2007 draft who was cut by the Oakland Raiders after three unproductive seasons. "You have all the hype, all the good publicity, and he's unable to fulfill those unbelievable expectations."
For that reason, Stevenson believes Newton should spend more time in the film room and less in the TV studio until he is established.
"If I was advising Cam, I'd say, 'Cam, the world is your oyster. You're a nice-looking kid. You speak well.' I think the kid's probably a good kid," said Stevenson, who teaches a sports business course at Duke and was instrumental in bringing the Wells Fargo (then the Wachovia) Championship to Charlotte's Quail Hollow Golf Club.
"I'd say focus on being a great player first. You don't need other distractions," Stevenson said. "There's going to be plenty of other distractions being the No. 1 draft pick, all the pressure that's on you in Carolina because they think he's the savior. Just focus on playing the game."
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