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The 30-second Drill

Over the course of his career with the Indianapolis Colts, quarterback Peyton Manning has been paid to: flick his little brother's earlobe, confess an affinity for cooking shows, hatch out of a football, cheer for deli workers, utter the word "doggone" on national television, meditate and wear a toupee.

He's done it all cheerfully, and why not? Along with his $98-million, seven- year contract with the Colts, Manning reportedly has the most lucrative endorsement setup in the NFL, pitching for companies such as Sprint, DirecTV and Mas- terCard even though he's never so much as appeared in the Super Bowl until now.

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And even if the Colts were to get clobbered in Sunday's game against the Chicago Bears, experts say Manning's advertising stats probably won't be sacked because his marketing allure stems more from his personality than his performance. The hammy Manning has emerged as one of those rare sports figures whose commercial success outguns his athletic record, and his pop culture appeal continues to grow regardless of what happens on game days.

"People feel like he's their next-door neighbor," says Todd Krinsky, vice president of sports and entertainment marketing for Reebok, which signed an endorsement deal with Manning in 2001. "He's one of those guys you know you want to be with for the duration of his career."

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"He's really coming into his own as of late," says Steve McDaniel, who teaches sport marketing and media at the University of Maryland. "He's a lead athlete, but he comes across as an Everyman."

And Manning is fast becoming a familiar face outside the football fan base as he floats, Forrest Gump-like, though the commercial lineup. That he'll finally be center stage in Miami on Super Bowl Sunday, the advertising industry's finest hours, will only heighten his profile. His transcendent presence recalls when Joe Namath, years after his Super Bowl celebrity, had become so recognizable to mainstream America that he played himself on an episode of The Brady Bunch.

Full of charisma

Experts chalk up Manning's magnetism not only to his football prowess, but also to his personal charisma, his place in a family football dynasty - his younger brother is an NFL quarterback, while his father is a former one - and his keen business strategy, which seems unusually receptive to endorsements.

Though his performance on the field is nothing to sneeze at - he holds the NFL record for most touchdown passes in a season, he's creeping up on several lifetime records, and he's guided the Colts to the playoffs seven of the past eight seasons - Manning lacks the untouchable reputation of dominant endorsers like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. (Woods still rakes in much more than Manning, making over $80 million compared with the quarterback's $11.5 million, according to a recent Sports Illustrated survey). Indeed, at least until this postseason, Manning's been defined as much by high-profile postseason failures as by his passing records and most valuable player awards.

But as a pitchman Manning reportedly scores bigger than anyone else in the NFL, including the New England Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady, with his three Super Bowl rings. Manning was recently named the league's "most marketable player" by the Sports Business Journal, and ranked behind only the Green Bay Packers' Brett Favre in another survey that focuses on player recognition.

Manning's raft of endorsements has prompted unlikely comparisons to another commercial overachiever, tennis player Anna Kournikova. But her selling power derives from a singular source, her great beauty, while Manning is not as pretty as Brady, let alone the golden-haired Russian.

Manning has built his commercial presence around character rather than chiseled looks or championships, developing an identity as a humble, good-humored and fundamentally decent fellow, according to Jim Andrews, editorial director of the IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks corporate sponsorships.

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"He has this all-American, guy-next-door image," Andrews says. "He's the guy who you want to pal around with. Brady's more of a glamour boy."

Indeed, Manning masquerades as an ordinary fan in some of his more famous commercials, including one for Sprint, where he dons a stick-on moustache and toupee to proclaim the greatness of Peyton Manning and his "laser-rocket arm," and several for MasterCard, where, like a deranged tailgater, he roots for regular people, including deli workers and deliverymen.

"He's willing to look kind of silly, a little goofy," McDaniel says. "There are some athletes who wouldn't do that."

His nice-guy aura is enhanced by his clean reputation as well as by the public service work he's done for Hurricane Katrina victims and other causes, leading some to dub him the NFL's "ambassador."

What's particularly interesting about Manning's commercial flowering is that in the early days of his career, the quarterback was sometimes criticized for being a cold fish, too intent on his game to be a sports personality, according to Kimberly Miloch, assistant professor of sport marketing and sport communication at Indiana University.

But when he began doing advertising work in his home state, the results were strong from the outset, she says. He pitched for a regional supermarket chain, a car dealership and a health care group before transitioning to larger campaigns for companies such as Gatorade and Reebok.

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"They started him local and grew his brand before taking him national," Miloch says.

The country embraced him. Although big-name commercial stars often hail from larger markets - New York, the country's advertising capital, launched everyone from Babe Ruth to Derek Jeter - Manning seems to be buoyed by his Midwestern goofiness.

Mean Joe Greene?

And although he's appeared in some lemons (his peculiar cameo as a high school quarterback in a recent Sony Bravia spot comes to mind), he's filmed several commercials that compare with classics like Mean Joe Greene's Coke ad.

Manning's success derives in part from his legitimate acting talent, says Chris Jogis, vice president of US Brand Development for MasterCard, which signed him in 2004 and made him a centerpiece of its well-known "Priceless" campaign.

In his early work for the brand, he shared the stage with other players, including the Giants' Mike Strahan and the Bears' Brian Urlacher, but carried later commercials alone. He has fine comedic timing, Jogis says, and even contributes creatively. In one of his "fan" gags, he was scripted to beg a supermarket clerk to autograph a melon, but then also ad-libbed a request to get a bread loaf signed for his little brother.

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"And it turned out to be one of the best lines in the commercial," Jogis says.

In fact, references to Manning's family members have become one of advertisers' favorite tools. To borrow a line from MasterCard: Having a dad and a sibling who are also well-known NFL quarterbacks? Priceless.

"We like stories," Andrews says. "He has a great story, and that helps enhance and raise his profile."

Father Archie Manning, the New Orleans Saints' quarterback, and brother Eli Manning, who currently starts for the New York Giants, show up at Peyton's side in several ads, including one where the brothers misbehave during a family tour of ESPN's studios, and another for the NFL where the three huddle before embarking on various household chores.

Some have speculated that Manning might parlay his commercial personality into farther-reaching stardom, in the tradition of O.J. Simpson, who went from endorsing Hertz to starring in the Naked Gun movies. For now, though, industry observers are confident that he'll sign lots of the contracts sent his way. Jon Show, a senior staff writer for the Sports Business Daily, says that Manning's marketing fame is more a business approach than the result of any innate talent, and that he accepts endorsement deals that other players, most notably Tom Brady, might turn down. Indeed, some sports stars gain fame from their association with a certain product, but Manning's commercial work is so widespread that it's hard to remember all his sponsors.

"It's a total strategy," Show says. "All of this comes down to time commitment, to earning potential and to branding strategy. ... With Brady, the widely held assumption is that he's nowadays less interested in a lot of public exposure."

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But any corporation which ends up with Manning instead has played its cards wisely, Show says.

"Sprint and MasterCard are not going to slap their brand on anyone who's a risk," he says. "There's no sure thing in sports anymore, but [Manning is] as close as you can get to a sure thing."

abigail.tucker@baltsun.com


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