The American Football Conference championship and a trip to the Super Bowl are at stake for the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, but a win could also mean big bucks for players seeking endorsements.
Ray Rice, Joe Flacco or even some lesser-known Raven will be poised to land deals if the team beats the New England Patriots on Sunday, sports marketing experts say. And the Super Bowl, with its huge television audience, provides a launching pad for such players to move from local to national brand endorsements.
"Just making it to the Super Bowl adds tremendous value to players," said Cleon Daskalakis, president of Massachusetts-based Celebrity Marketing Inc., which represents both athletes and companies in securing endorsements. "Winning brings it to a completely different level.
"Everyone wants their product, their service to be considered the winning product and the winning service, the best. And one of the best attributes you can have is that of being a champion. It means everything that that player stands for gets validated."
Plenty of Ravens players can be seen making pitches for banks, pizza, car dealerships, and furniture and convenience stores, among others. And that's likely to increase, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's game.
But highly lucrative national endorsements — especially those unrelated to sports gear — are harder to come by. Corporate America is concerned about the economy, and about associating with athletes whose images might end up tarnished, experts say.
"With the economy and the way business is going now, it's not a given," said Stephen McDaniel, an associate professor in sports and entertainment marketing at the University of Maryland. "A lot of athletes think it's part of their entitlement to have these endorsements, and there just aren't that many slots for them."
McDaniel considers linebacker Ray Lewis the "most iconic" player on the team. "When you talk about other Ravens players, I'm not so sure I see that person popping out. … [T]hey would have to win the AFC and have a consistent showing in the Super Bowl to get these elite types of endorsements."
Still, some Baltimore-area marketing experts see strong possibilities for a handful of players.
"The guy with the most opportunity is Ray Rice," says Howe Burch, an executive vice president with TBC Advertising in Baltimore and a former marketing executive with Reebok and Fila.
The running back, Burch and others said, has a compelling, against-the-odds story, good looks, charisma and an overachieving personality — plus a record with companies such as Gillette.
Burch said he can picture Rice as a pitchman for soft drinks or a Subway-type food chain, or, because of his youth, a wireless company. There also could be opportunities with products or services that pride themselves on speed, such as an Internet provider.
"Ray is everything you look for in an endorser," Burch said. "He has a great personality and is a phenomenal player. Now here's the biggest stage of all, the championship game and hopefully the Super Bowl. Depending on how far the Ravens go and his part in that success … the sky's the limit for Ray."
Lewis comes in a close second in marketability, thanks to his longevity and leadership skills, Burch said. And he has proved himself in a series of Old Spice television commercials, making fun of his tough image and appearing in one spot lathered in body wash.
"Ray is legendary, a sure-fire Hall of Fame player," he said. "Should the Ravens win and should Ray have an outstanding performance, there will be marketing opportunities."
John Maroon, president of Maroon PR, says quarterback Joe Flacco and rookie wide receiver Torrey Smith have the biggest endorsement potential — if they play well.
"If [Flacco] has a big game that takes them to the Super Bowl, Joe will go in the upper echelon of quarterbacks," Maroon said. "Quarterbacks generally are pretty marketable folks."
Smith, known for his speed and electric plays, could be an ideal pitchman for high-speed Internet or an airline, Maroon said.
Then again, he said, someone completely unexpected could emerge. "Oftentimes, there are these guys you didn't give too much thought to before the Super Bowl, but because they have a special game, it changes their life on the spot."
If a lesser-known player wins the Super Bowl's award for most valuable player or is featured in some notable plays, "the agents have a small window of time to capitalize on that" because consumers generally have a short attention span, Maroon said.
The Super Bowl has launched players into the endorsement spotlight before. Last year's Super Bowl MVP, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is this year's star of a State Farm insurance ad campaign.
Except for Rodgers' Super Bowl performance, "you wouldn't have seen that opportunity unfold," Burch said. "Now that campaign subsequently has introduced other teammates of his."
But Burch suspects that when State Farm signed the athlete last year, it "was betting on the Packers getting back to the Super Bowl."
Companies seek out athletes who will appeal to specific market segments and consider themselves lucky if they find someone with "crossover" appeal.
Sports apparel maker Under Armour looks for athletes who show leadership and hard work while excelling in a sport. Its roster of Ravens includes Lewis, Smith, defensive lineman Haloti Ngata and receiver Anquan Boldin, said Matt Mirchin, the Baltimore-based company's senior vice president of global sports marketing.
"There are a lot of great athletes, across sports, across genders," Mirchin said. "There are not that many that have the potential to cross over" and appeal to a bigger swath of the consumer market.
Lewis is credited with helping to expand Under Armour's reach from football to other sports. Other cross-over athletes are Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — who brought in $10 million in endorsements in 2011 according to Sports Illustrated — and Cam Newton, a Heisman Trophy winner and rookie quarterback for the Carolina Panthers signed by Under Armour last year.
Newton is "someone we can market multiple ways in multiple categories to multiple consumers," Mirchin said. "And both Tom and Cam are incredibly well-spoken, both winners, who are passionate about what they do."
Of the Ravens, Mirchin agrees that Rice, whom he calls a "great player and a hardworking kid," has a chance to shine commercially. "I'm sure the success the Ravens have enjoyed and are enjoying will allow him to establish additional [endorsement] relationships," he said.
And the opportunities may not be limited to the players.
If the Ravens end up in the Super Bowl and play the 49ers, coaches and brothers John Harbaugh (Baltimore) and Jim Harbaugh (San Francisco) would find themselves in the spotlight in a big way.
"Brother versus brother," Burch said. "You could have interesting marketing coming out of that. Who's to say whether they would be interested, but you could have a lot of fun with that."
Ravens players have endorsed
Ray Lewis: Under Armour, Old Spice
Ray Rice: M&T Bank, Gillette, Sheets energy strips,
Joe Flacco: Pizza Hut, Reebok, 1st Mariner Bank