The hoodies and T-shirts in Lamar Jackson’s product line say “Nobody Cares Work Harder” and “Believe That." His logo is a wild dog. There are no Nike swooshes, Adidas’ three stripes or Under Armour’s interlocked U’s and A’s on his Era 8 Apparel.
So far in a young but meteoric NFL career, the Ravens star has juked his own way, launching his own clothing collection instead of aligning himself with a big sports brand. But experts say the likely NFL Most Valuable Player, who captured the spotlight with his dynamic quarterback style and humble demeanor, likely won’t remain a sports apparel free agent for long.
“The chances are very good that he’ll land something big,” said Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco-based sports marketing analyst. “He was the talk of the league this season.”
No matter that Jackson’s stunning, record-setting season stopped short of the Super Bowl. The divisional round playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans still stings in Baltimore, but experts say a single game likely won’t dim Jackson’s future as a face of a big apparel brand.
“He’s 23 years old, with at least 10-plus years of playing at a high level in front of him,” said Howe Burch, president of Baltimore-based advertising firm TBC. “There’s tons of potential, from a marketing perspective. ...
“Lamar has transcended Baltimore. In terms of popularity, he’s connecting with kids all over the country.”
Dorfman compared Jackson’s prospects to those of Patrick Mahomes, the young Kansas City Chiefs quarterback who is Super Bowl-bound and recently struck a deal with Adidas, in addition to nonapparel deals with State Farm and Head & Shoulders.
Mahomes “had a quick rise to endorsement fame, and definitely Jackson has that potential," said Dorfman, creative director for Baker Street Advertising.
Jackson, who is expected to be named MVP when the award is announced Saturday, in advance of the Super Bowl on Sunday night, remains unaffiliated with any major brand, apparel or otherwise. He promotes his Era 8 clothing line on Instagram. But in November he told The Baltimore Sun that he’s open to corporate sponsorships “if they come to me correct and we talk the right numbers and stuff like that.”
For Under Armour, Jackson would be a hometown hero. While the Baltimore-based athletic brand has struggled in recent years and seemingly stepped back from marquee signings, it also makes a mantra of “protect this house” and Baltimore is its home.
Under Armour already partners with the Ravens. Its name is on the team’s practice facility in Owings Mills and they collaborate on community and youth projects under a 10-year deal consummated in 2012.
The apparel maker does not comment on potential interest in athletes.
An Adidas spokesman declined to comment and Nike did not respond to a request for comment.
Sneaker and apparel brands typically make bigger investments in basketball stars than in football players. Basketball athletes tend to be more recognizable and play in shoes consumers can wear on or off the court, unlike football cleats.
But big deals are out there for star players, high-profile quarterbacks, Super Bowl MVPs and others. Mahomes and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers pitch for State Farm, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for Under Armour and Ravens kicker Justin Tucker for Royal Farms.
Jackson, as part of the next generation of “dynamic” young quarterbacks, will be in high demand because he’s still unsigned by an apparel brand and because he’s likely to get the league’s top award for the season, said Samantha Sankovich, a Baltimore-based NFL agent.
“The brands are going to be after him,” said Sankovich, senior vice president for athlete management and marketing strategy for PFS Agency, which represents NFL players. “One would think the major three brands have definitely already tried to contact him and his team to start some conversations.”
An endorsement deal with any of those brands could make sense for different reasons and could be worth $10 million or more, marketing experts said.
Adidas touts creativity, and “Lamar is probably one of the most creative players on the field,”
said. Additionally, Adidas outfits teams at the University of Louisville where Jackson played college football and won the Heisman Trophy in 2016.
Aside from Under Armour’s Baltimore connection, Jackson would fit its focus on performance, he said.
Nike, though, has the bigger budget and is the NFL’s uniform sponsor, a key advantage in marketing an athlete, industry experts say.
"It makes sense if you look at what he wears currently,” Burch said. “He might like how the product performs.”
Under Armour, which at 24 years old and with $5.2 billion in sales is younger and smaller than rivals Nike and Adidas, is known for identifying and signing young talented athletes, such as golfer Jordan Spieth and baseball player Bryce Harper, a Philadelphia Phillies right fielder. One of its newer athletes is Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid, whose 2018 sneaker endorsement deal reportedly made him the highest-paid player at his position.
In recent months, executives indicated that better-than-expected progress on a turnaround plan to stabilize the business and reverse a slide in sales would allow the brand to boost its marketing efforts.
“While we’ve certainly realized some success in product-specific marketing efforts over the past couple of years, 2020 will be the first year since our transformation began that we will have the ability to put the right resources combined with the scale behind our brand marketing efforts," founder Kevin Plank, who stepped down as CEO earlier this month, told investors and analysts in November.
Earlier this month the company unveiled a yearlong marketing campaign, “The Only Way is Through,” with a theme of overcoming adversity. But officials this week declined to discuss how a marketing boost might affect its athlete sponsorship strategy.
If it does plan to make a run for Jackson, Under Armour might have more competition than ever from a growing list of brands looking to make a name in football and other sports, names such as Puma, New Balance and lululemon, Sankovich said. Less traditional brands might appeal to younger players looking to set themselves apart, she said.
“They want to be really new and fresh in their space,” she said. “The big three, I’m sure, are in the conversation, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the newer brands are in it, too.”
While brands look for attributes such as personality, marketability and social reach, today’s athletes often want to collaborate, said Will Norton, director of the McCormack Center for Sport Research & Education at the University of Massachusetts.
Jackson’s "choice will come down to his objectives, whether it’s the most money or creative license in creating a product,” Norton said. “The fact that he came to the draft with no [professional] agent and was not snatched up certainly hints that he may be an entrepreneur who wants to run things, but he’s leaving a lot of money on the table by doing that.”
In an unconventional arrangement, Jackson is managed by his mother, Felicia Jones. A representative of Lamar Jackson Enterprises did not respond to questions about Jackson’s plans for his brand or potential endorsement deals.
Brands courting Jackson might want to explore partnerships that incorporate his existing clothing lines, said Henry C. Boyd III, clinical professor of marketing at the University of Maryland.
“With social media, we’re all crafting our own brands. It’s a whole different age," Boyd said.
In the end, Burch said, Jackson “is going to do what he thinks is right for the Lamar Jackson brand, whether a company is in Baltimore or Portland. The smart decision is to go with the company that best represents who he is as a player.”