A few years ago, I was asked by a sports trade publication my opinion on what the marketability of Tim Tebow would be as he entered the NFL. I stated that he would have difficulty gaining sponsors due to his outspoken beliefs. (Marketers shy away from anything polarizing when using endorsers.) Well, I was wrong on this one. Tebow Time was born, and his uplifting personality became infectious. Famously infectious to the point that Tebow transcended sport for the masses; sponsors signed him for appearances at events and in national advertising. It was like watching someone win the lottery.
Three years later, we might have seen the last of Tebow mania, following last week’s announcement that the New York Jets officially released the quarterback. For many, this is sad news because they believed, regardless of athletic ability, that his uplifting character would catapult their team into the Super Bowl. And for the press-fatigued fan, they will be happy for the time-out. Regardless of the opinions, there was a Tebow tidal wave in every corner of our media consumption.
There is an age-old marketing lesson in the Tebow tale: performance on the field drives marketability, and personality is secondary. By all accounts, Tim Tebow was one of the best college football players of his generation – a great teammate, a hard worker and a good guy. The harsh reality is that quality personality and reputation, something we marketers desire in sports superstars, matters less.
During his college days at Florida, there were signs of Tebow being the ratings monster he would eventually become. When his Gators tromped Cincinnati during his final college game in the BCS Sugar Bowl, more than 15.5 million tuned in to watch. That was a 57% jump in ratings for the Sugar Bowl, just by having Tebow in the game, according to a Jacksonville.com article.
When Tim Tebow was drafted in 2010, he led jersey sales for each month of the season, according to Bleacher Report. At the height of Tebow mania in 2011, networks saw massive ratings jumps at the mere mention of his name. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, KCNC in Denver, which carried the majority of the Broncos games, saw ratings jump 13% compared to when Tebow was riding the bench. The culmination might have come in January 2012 when Tebow led the Denver Broncos to an overtime win against the Pittsburgh Steelers, with a monstrous household TV rating of 25.9, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
ESPN was, perhaps, the biggest promoter of Tebow insanity, and their ratings soared, particularly on the show “First Take,” which saw a 21% ratings jump in 2011, according to thebiglead.com. Tebow-time steered much of the high-level content decisions within networks like ESPN, leading to an over saturation of Tebow coverage.
Networks weren’t the only ones hopping on the Tebow bandwagon. Almost immediately after the Tebow craze began, brands and advertisers started calling, trying to attach their product to the star QB. With the combination of good character and on-field heroics after the 2011-2012 playoffs run, Tebow proved his worth to brands, including TiVo, FRS Energy Drink and Jockey.
All of this landed him in the biggest market for a sports star: New York City. The Jets traded for Tebow and trotted him out at a press conference. ESPN followed Tebow’s every move throughout the entire course of the 2012 training camp. He helped cure us of Bret Favre’s retirement, but that was it; he didn’t play.
Earning little fanfare, a brief announcement from the Jets was just a blip on the news cycle. Many will chalk it up as another flash in the “sports superstardom” pan. The story will live in the history books and great NFL films. But that’s it.
Everything in sports is judged by wins and performance. It has been this way for generations and marketers know it.
Sports stars are the most popular ideological figures with whom consumers can identify. While personalities may differ, and strike a chord with us for various reasons, skill is still every fan’s focus. We would think the good-guy in Tebow could persevere as a spokesperson even without the play. But, that’s not what makes a superstar. Fans don’t pay money to watch personalities; fans pay for slam dunks, homeruns and touchdowns. In the unfortunate case of Tebow, his stellar personality is lost to the lack of performance on the field and, therefore, lost to potential marketers.