Quarterback Johnny Manziel is bringing “Johnny Football” to the National Football League, with a personality that recalls Joe Namath and enough skills to be projected to be the first quarterback drafted this week.
In two years at Texas A&M University, he became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy and gained national exposure for his on- and off-field performances. Manziel threw 63 touchdown passes, ran for another 30 scores, was suspended for half a game for a violation connected to signing autographs and was photographed hobnobbing with celebrities.
“There hasn’t been anybody in quite a while that’s come up with this kind of sensational marketability,” Bob Dorfman, executive creative director at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco, said in a telephone interview. “He has sort of a Joe Namath flair about him, he likes to have fun and he’s got a great nickname already. That certainly helps.”
Manziel, 21, enters the NFL backed by the marketing team behind LeBron James, a four-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player and the second-highest earning athlete in North American sports. Before even knowing which NFL team he’ll join, Manziel has signed endorsement contracts with McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain; Nike Inc., the world’s biggest sporting goods maker; and Panini America Inc., the world leader in officially licensed sports and entertainment collectibles.
Dorfman estimates that Manziel, being “undrafted and unproven,” probably nets around $2 million annually from his portfolio, with the Nike deal possibly including performance bonuses based on his success in the NFL.
Former President George W. Bush attended Manziel’s pro day workout for NFL clubs at Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, last month, where Nike released a signature Manziel-themed apparel collection. Manziel has been a guest on late-night talk shows and socialized with celebrities from singer Justin Timberlake and actress Jessica Biel to the Robertson brothers on the “Duck Dynasty” television program. His company, JMAN2 Enterprises LLC, is seeking to trademark the term “Johnny Football,” his nickname.
Though just under 6 feet tall, Manziel is the biggest name in a quarterback crop that includes Central Florida’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Fresno State’s Derek Carr and Alabama’s AJ McCarron. Manziel is slotted by ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. to be selected fourth overall by the Cleveland Browns in the draft that starts tomorrow.
Almost 50 years ago, Namath, nicknamed “Broadway Joe,” won a Super Bowl title with the New York Jets, became a fixture on the city’s nightlife scene and was a television pitchman for products from shaving cream to pantyhose.
In the 1965 NFL draft, Namath was chosen 12th overall by the St. Louis Cardinals after quarterback Craig Morton was picked fifth by the Dallas Cowboys. Namath instead went to the maverick American Football League, home to the Jets. The two leagues later merged.
Manziel has almost 800,000 followers on Twitter. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will present Manziel with his team jersey at the NFL draft, has just under 450,000.
“He is Hollywood already,” Matt Delzell, a managing director in the celebrity talent group at Dallas-based Marketing Arm, said of Manziel. “He’s got that kind of personality, and he’s been like that for the two years he’s been in college. I don’t know that we’ve seen anyone like that come out in a really long time.”
Manziel in January hired Maverick Carter of LRMR Management Company LLC, to help him with business, media, entertainment and merchandising opportunities during his NFL career. Carter was a high-school teammate and long-time friend of James, with whom Manziel has already appeared in a McDonald’s commercial.
Carter didn’t return messages left at his office.
“Part of the reason he did that is to pursue more of a lifestyle brand of Johnny Manziel, not just a performance brand,” Delzell said in a telephone interview. “All those other guys -- the footwear, apparel and Gatorade deals; all those things that correlate to their on-field performance -- that makes a lot of sense. But they might have a harder time going out and selling or promoting something else.”
While the quarterback position has always been a focal point in the NFL, the league has become increasingly more pass-happy. There were a record 804 touchdown passes thrown last season and the leaguewide passer rating was 86.0, up from the previous mark of 757 touchdowns and 85.6 rating in 2012.
In the past five NFL drafts, 14 quarterbacks have been taken in the first round. No running back was selected in the opening round last year for the first time since 1963 and no running back is projected among the top 32 picks this year.
The Houston Texans have the first pick and Jadeveon Clowney, a defensive end from the University of South Carolina, is widely considered by draft analysts to be this year’s top choice. The St. Louis Rams, Jacksonville Jaguars, Browns and Oakland Raiders complete the top five picks.
Though Manziel is projected by many analysts as a first-round pick, he’s also faced questions about his maturity, lack of height and improvisational playing style. Minnesota Vikings coach Mike Zimmer called Manziel’s pro day workout a “sideshow” and said a franchise quarterback needs to show he’s focused on football rather than the limelight.
“I’ve faced some scrutiny off the field, but I’m continuing to learn from my mistakes and continuing to grow up,” Manziel said at the NFL’s scouting combine in February. “I have an opportunity now moving into a professional phase. This is life, this is a job for me now, and I’m taking it very seriously. I’m really excited about the future.”
Manziel’s style may not be for everyone, said Jon Gruden, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl title after the 2002 season.
“Manziel brings a lot of excitement and interest to your organization,” said Gruden, who is now an NFL analyst for ESPN. “Some people don’t want to be a part of that.”
Gruden said Manziel will be a winner in the NFL, though others aren’t as sure. Former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski is among his critics, saying Manziel deserves to be a third-round pick and needs development.
Manziel’s long-term potential off the field will ultimately be determined by his success on it, marketers said. Manziel’s awareness with the general public has risen 8 percent in the past eight months and his endorsement, influence and trust scores have increased as well, according to the Celebrity DBI, a global index co-owned by Repucom and the Marketing Arm that ranks consumer perceptions of celebrities.
Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, a five-time NFL MVP, was the NFL’s top pitchman in 2013 with about $13 million in endorsements from a portfolio that includes General Motors Co.’s Buick brand, Adidas AG’s Reebok, DirecTV and Papa John’s International Inc.
“Is he going to be a Tim Tebow, where he doesn’t make it, or is he going to be as sensational as he was in college? That’s the big question,” Dorfman said of Manziel. “He certainly seems to be a winner. If he can continue that in the pros, he could take over for Peyton Manning, eventually, as the No. 1 guy in marketability in football.”