Photographer: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Selling Cam Newton: Kids Adore Him, Even If Their Parents Don't

  • Newton's Super Bowl run positions him as NFL's breakout star
  • Carolina's QB is more popular with teens than Broncos' Manning

Grown-up athletes typically endorse grown-up products. Peyton Manning pushes Nationwide insurance; Tom Brady plugs Movado fashion watches. Cam Newton? He’s 6-foot-5, 245 pounds, and all Nickelodeon.

The Carolina Panthers’ 26-year-old quarterback is using his Super Bowl run to establish himself as a pitch-man to America’s youngest consumers. Unlike other professional athletes chasing moneyed older fans, Newton is wooing kids.

Cam Newton

Photographer: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

“He’s fun, playful, authentic,” said Bronwen O’Keefe, senior vice president of development and production at Viacom Inc.’s Nickelodeon, which during the off-season will begin taping a show starring Newton. “Those are the aspects that matter for this generation in particular.”

Among 13- to 17-year-olds, Newton is the most highly rated quarterback in seven of the eight categories that matter to brands, according to the Celebrity DBI database compiled by Dallas-based ad agency The Marketing Arm. Among all public figures, Newton still charts with teens: His "aspiration" ranking puts him at No. 221, more than 1,200 spots above Manning, the 39-year-old Broncos quarterback Newton will face in the Feb. 7 championship game.

When kids ask for gear, they want Newton’s name on the back. For youth-sized shirts and jerseys sold by online retailer Fanatics.com, Newton has been the top seller for the last three months – sales that are up fivefold over the same time last year, according to the e-tailer. With a broader audience, Marketing Arm considers Newton as influential as George Clooney and a trend-setter alongside Idris Elba.

Newton will capitalize on this popularity with the new Nickelodeon show, currently titled “I Wanna Be.” Over 20 episodes, the quarterback will take kids on adventures, like performing with Cirque du Soleil. Newton dazzled the focus groups that saw the pilot episode, O’Keefe said. “The notion that he could be the Robin to a kid’s Batman – he was the ultimate sidekick.”

“The show is going to give Cam the chance to go head first into the kids market,” his agent, Carlos Fleming of WME/IMG, said in an interview. They also plan to position the quarterback with digital deals and data-driven businesses like fitness trackers, all of which skew younger. “That’s the biggest opportunity moving forward.”

More typical companies like Under Armour, PepsiCo Inc.’s Gatorade, Microsoft Corp. and General Motors Co.round out Newton’s $11 million endorsement portfolio. He’s not throwing himself only at fans too young to have credit cards. But at least one NFL sponsor -– Dannon Foods Inc. – chose Newton precisely because of his appeal to a family-oriented audience.

The yogurt company attached Newton to its Oikos brand, counting on him to get to moms’ and dads’ grocery lists via their kids, said Art D’Elia, the company’s vice president of marketing. “He’s a crossover spokesperson,” D’Elia said, adding it didn’t hurt that Newton was the face of NFL Play 60, a league initiative designed to tackle childhood obesity.

Not everyone shares teens’ affection for Newton. His critics lament Newton’s flashy on-field celebrations, including his trademark dab, as a gargantuan ego run amok. "Egotism, arrogance, and poor sportsmanship," chided a Nashville mom in a letter in Newton’s hometown paper, the Charlotte Observer, after the Panthers visited the Tennessee Titans.

Many people have suggested Newton provokes this kind of reaction in part because he is black. “I’ve said this since Day One - I’m an African-American quarterback that scares people because they haven’t seen nothing that they can compare me to,” Newton said during a Jan. 28 press conference. “You’ll have to get used to it, because I don’t plan on changing.”

Fleming said he would never ask him to. For every person turned off by Newton’s take on fun, there are legions of Nickelodeon viewers imitating Newton’s end-zone shenanigans in schoolyard pickup games everywhere.

“He’s just doing what he’s done since he’s eight years old,” Fleming said. “Young people connect with that.”

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