Michael Vick’s fans may give him the marketing opportunity that major companies haven’t since the Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback pleaded guilty to dogfighting charges in 2007.
Vick will find out today whether he has been chosen as the cover athlete for the latest version of Electronic Arts Inc. (ERTS)’s Madden NFL series, the world’s best-selling sports video game. One of 32 candidates for the honor, Vick is up against Peyton Hillis of the Cleveland Browns in the final round of voting.
Vick has sought to restore his public image since the dog fighting case that led to a federal prison term, forced him to miss two National Football League seasons and cost him sponsorships with companies including Nike Inc., the world’s largest athletic shoemaker. Vick was voted the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year with the Eagles in 2010.
“The fan vote has given him a chance that he probably could not have gotten anywhere else,” Steve Rosner, co-founder of Rutherford, New Jersey-based 16W Marketing LLC, said in a telephone interview. “We’ve seen a few minor endorsement opportunities in the last six months, but I can’t see people in the board room thinking about Michael Vick being their spokesman for any product at this point.”
Vick would be the first two-time cover athlete in the 22 years of the Madden NFL series. He was on the front of the 2004 version, while playing with the Atlanta Falcons.
Anthony Stevenson, a senior product manager for EA Sports, said the company has little concern about potentially having Vick as its most visible NFL player and using him in national marketing campaigns.
“There is certainly no shortage of opinion on Mike personally, but when it comes to Madden football, we’re about on-field performance,” Stevenson said in a telephone interview from his Orlando, Florida, office. “So when it’s up to fans and they’re voting not only for him to start in the Pro Bowl but also to advance to the finals of this cover vote, it’s hard for us to think it’s a bad thing.”
Last year’s version of Madden sold over 5 million copies in the U.S., according to the NPD Group, a Port Washington, New York-based market research firm. EA doesn’t release dollar figures but said more than 90 million copies of the Madden games have been sold since starting in 1989.
This is the first time fans have had full control over the Madden NFL cover athlete. The voting campaign began last month as part of a strategy by Redwood City, California-based EA to combat negative fan sentiment caused by the NFL labor dispute.
“In looking at the situation, we said, ‘Let’s give them something fun to talk about,’” Stevenson said. “That gives us a platform to let our fans know it doesn’t matter what happens with the NFL season, there will be a Madden NFL 12.”
The contest was held like a single-elimination tournament, with players going head-to-head in each round similar to the national college basketball tournament.
Vick reached the finals as a No. 3 seed in his half of the draw by beating DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, Andre Johnson of the Houston Texans, Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers and Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings. Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers was the top seed in that half, with Hines Ward of the Pittsburgh Steelers No. 2.
Vick has lobbied for fan support via his Twitter and Facebook pages. He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he’s more excited about possibly being on the cover of Madden NFL 12 than having his picture on the side of the stadium at the Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field.
“It’s global,” Vick told the newspaper about the videogame. “Everyone plays it. It’s a game you look forward to playing every year.”
Hillis, the No. 10 seed in his half, advanced with a series of upsets. The Browns’ running back topped Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons, Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs and top-seeded Aaron Rodgers, quarterback of the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. The Browns have a link to the Madden vote on their website.
“Hillis is the ultimate underdog story and has the entire city of Cleveland treating this as though this is their Super Bowl,” Stevenson said. “They’re saying, ‘We lost LeBron (James) and the Indians haven’t won the World Series in (62) years. We have control here and we’re not letting go.’”
Although the cover winner wouldn’t have an official endorsement contract with EA Sports, Vick or Hillis would receive compensation for publicity appearances, Stevenson said, declining to provide specifics. All NFL players receive a share of sales revenue for use of their likeness in the game.
Vick picked up two minor sponsorships this year: for thigh pads he uses and for a titanium-infused silicone wristband. Other companies have been reluctant to align with such a polarizing player, Rosner said, so the cover role would be a coup for Vick, putting him on store shelves and in television cabinets across the U.S.
While some fans -- especially animal lovers -- might not buy a game with Vick on the cover, Rosner said, there would probably be a “relatively minor” impact on EA’s sales.
“I imagine a good portion of their sales are from dedicated gamers,” Rosner said. “Vick seems to be on the right track of trying to make his image much more positive than it was a year ago. I give him kudos for that.”
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