Timing is everything in sports -- just ask Unilever and Mark Sanchez.
On the same day the London- and Rotterdam-based consumer-products maker unveiled the New York Jets quarterback as the centerpiece of a marketing campaign for its Degree anti-perspirant, Sanchez endured the sweat-inducing debut of his new backup, Tim Tebow, who may replace him.
Sanchez has been the Jets starter since his rookie year in 2009 and led them to the American Football Conference championship game his first two years. Last season, he came under criticism from fans and management as New York lost its last three games to miss the playoffs, while Tebow led the Denver Broncos to the postseason.
“It’s unfortunate timing as the attention on Sanchez is not the positive attention that Unilever were expecting,” said Sue Bridgewater, director of the Centre for Management in Sport at the U.K.’s Warwick Business School. “That is the risk you take in using a sports star as an endorser.”
Unilever’s March 26 announcement received scant attention. Tebow that day held his first press conference at the team’s training center in Florham Park, New Jersey, that drew more than 200 media members. He said he understands that he is Sanchez’s backup, although that doesn’t mean he won’t try to earn the first-team job.
“For everybody who puts on a uniform, you want to go out there and play,” Tebow, 24, said. “Every day in practice I am going to go out there, and I am going to compete.”
‘Here to Help’
The Degree marketing will put Sanchez through a series of “adrenaline-fueled adventures” such as flying with the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels jet squadron, training with the U.S. rugby team, or driving a rally race car. Sanchez will tackle two of four possible challenges, voted by fans, during the offseason.
“Football season is over, but it doesn’t mean the pressures have ended for pro quarterback Mark Sanchez,” Unilever said in a press release. Added the Jets quarterback, in the same release: “I can’t wait to push my off-season even more with a new set of adventures.”
Sanchez, who didn’t attend Tebow’s press conference, said he’s not worried that the new arrival will threaten his job.
“He’s here to help us,” the 25-year-old quarterback told reporters later that day. “I’m confident in my abilities. I know the team has the same belief. I’m the same guy who helped the team win a lot of games here.”
‘No Big Crisis’
Ill-timed athlete endorsements are nothing new. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang, a favorite to win gold as he did in 2004, withdrew through injury, striking a blow to companies such as Nike Inc. and Coca-Cola Co. who had him in their marketing plans. Golfer Tiger Woods’ extramarital affairs cost him deals with Accenture Plc and AT&T Inc.
“They are great sports stars, but they can get injured, or lose form, and this can happen suddenly, and dramatically,” said Bridgewater. “In the case of Sanchez, there is no big crisis as there has been with some celebrity endorsers over the years, just a temporary dip in performance. If this went on longer term, they might reassess his strategic value to them.”
Tebow, who won the Heisman Trophy as college football’s best player in 2007, has had more successes lately than Sanchez. He helped the Broncos rebound from a 1-4 start to make the playoffs, where they upset the Pittsburgh Steelers in overtime before falling to the New England Patriots.
A Christian who stresses his faith publicly, Tebow was named America’s favorite pro athlete in an ESPN poll this year. He had the NFL’s second-best-selling jersey from April 2011 through February this year, trailing only Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, according to the National Football League.
The Jets collapse last season was marked by locker-room controversy including verbal altercations between Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes. Sanchez was 23rd among quarterbacks with a 78.2 rating, and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum said he “didn’t play well.”
The Jets acquired Tebow and a seventh-round draft pick on March 21 from the Denver Broncos for fourth- and sixth-round selections. Sanchez signed a five-year contract extension worth $58 million earlier this month, ESPN reported, citing people inside the NFL.
Sanchez said he’s not concerned that fans may chant Tebow’s name if the team is struggling. Such a situation might trigger Degree’s so-called MotionSense technology, a “breakthrough formula” engineered to “stay ahead of sweat and odor.”
The product’s suggested retail price is $4.29. A seat in the Toyota Coaches Club at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, five yards behind the Jets’ bench costs $700, plus a $20,000 personal seat license.
Tebow said he will try to “expand the role” he is given. “I play better when I have more on the line,” he said at the press conference.
Spoken like a future anti-perspirant pitchman.