In a series of TV ads that have run this fall for the Ohio-based insurance company Progressive Corp., Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield tends to Cleveland’s FirstEnergy Stadium as if it’s his home. He mows the grass. He fiddles with a circuit breaker. He cleans up after guests, his cordless vacuum making slow work of discarded popcorn and plastic straws.
The chores are a source of comedy but also frustration. The commercials were filmed before the season, when Cleveland was considered the AFC North favorite and the chirp of a hard-to-find stadium smoke detector was among Mayfield’s most pressing concerns.
Now the ads feel detached from reality. Through 11 weeks of the NFL season, the Browns have returned to their familiar role of league laughingstocks. Brands aligned with Mayfield, once considered a rising star, have watched another losing season unfold. When the Ravens return to Cleveland on Dec. 22, the Browns’ most popular player will have more corporate sponsors (nine) than 2019 wins.
In Baltimore, the only ads featuring Lamar Jackson are for Ravens games. But as the team heads into Monday night’s prime-time battle against the Los Angeles Rams, there is interest not only in whether the second-year star can maintain his Most Valuable Player-caliber form but also in how he might capitalize on it. Jackson could soon follow Mayfield into marketing; what makes him a dynamic quarterback, according to industry experts, might also make him a dynamic pitchman.
“Lamar Jackson is definitely a superstar in the making,” said Doug Shabelman, CEO of Burns Entertainment, which matches advertisers with celebrity talent for commercial and sponsorship opportunities. “His personality, the way he handles himself, the way his team rallies around him, the leadership qualities — those are all the absolute best traits you can have not only on the field but also off the field for marketers who are looking for that fresh face. ...
“He’d be the perfect pitch person, as long as he wants to do that.”
With every triumph this season, Jackson has won over critics and charmed fans. After posting a perfect quarterback rating in the Ravens’ season opener, his best game of a young career that, until then, had been defined by his running ability, Jackson quipped: “Not bad for a running back.”
In an October victory over the Seattle Seahawks and MVP candidate Russell Wilson, the Ravens took the lead for good after Jackson convinced coach John Harbaugh that the team should take a chance on fourth-and-short. This time, Jackson ran for a touchdown.
As the 22-year-old has lifted the Ravens to six straight wins, his national acclaim and social media profile growing by the week, no companies have been along for the ride. He has a clothing line, Era 8 Apparel, which he launched last year and promotes tirelessly on Instagram, but Jackson is otherwise unaffiliated, a branding free agent. He said Thursday that he’s open to corporate sponsorships “if they come to me correct and we talk the right numbers and stuff like that.”
Jackson is managed by his mother, Felicia Jones, an unconventional arrangement that some marketing experts say could deter corporate interest. But Jonathan A. Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and professor at the University of North Carolina, called Jackson’s approach to business “actually really smart.”
Jensen estimated that Jackson’s savings from not having an agent negotiate his four-year, $9.5 million rookie contract exceed what he might’ve earned from early-career endorsement deals. Given industry licensing rates, Jackson could also earn more in apparel sales through his own clothing shingle than through a sportswear giant like Adidas. And there is value in having what Jensen called an “uncluttered portfolio.”
“That's really attractive for a sponsor,” he said. “In the future, somebody could come in, really do a groundbreaking campaign with him and not have to worry about a lot of noise from other sponsors.”
The challenge for Jackson will be finding partnerships that are financially and strategically rewarding. Unlike in the NBA, where top draft pick Zion Williamson reportedly signed a seven-year, $75 million deal with Nike’s Jordan Brand, endorsement deals for NFL stars are rarely as lucrative. Wilson, the league’s highest-earning player in 2019, according to Forbes, made only an estimated $9 million in endorsements over the past year.
But the range of sponsorship opportunities is vast. The Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes are staples in State Farm insurance ads. The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady is loyal to Baltimore-based Under Armour and the footwear company Ugg. Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has pitched for Royal Farms.
Michael Vick, the former NFL quarterback to whom Jackson is most often compared, was considered the league’s most marketable player early in his career. Nike’s advertising campaign played up his unpredictable, inimitable style, imagining in one commercial an amusement park roller coaster called “The Michael Vick Experience.”
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Experts believe Jackson’s unique skill set lends itself to similar possibilities. Bob Dorfman, the creative director at Baker Street Advertising, said Jackson could be a good fit for a truck company or a product that “shows a lot of strength and athleticism.” Apex Marketing Group president Eric Smallwood said Jackson, with his near-weekly viral feats, is “probably the front-runner” for the next cover athlete of the popular “Madden NFL” video game series.
“The more he’s on the [TV] screen, the more valuable it is to the brand,” Smallwood said. “But I think if everything stays the same, it will continue to grow. He can help grow a brand as a brand can help grow him.”
Dorfman, a sports marketing expert, called Jackson “a local hero” who could “probably do anything he wants” in Baltimore-area advertising. But even with Jackson’s on-field success, Heisman Trophy pedigree and 1.5 million Instagram followers, Dorfman warned that it’s probably “too early” for him to go national, as peers like Mahomes have.
Shabelman said Jackson could be among the league’s most marketable players. First, though, he’ll need more wins on bigger stages. Baltimore’s relatively small market has somewhat limited Jackson’s exposure, according to experts, as have the Ravens’ rare prime-time appearances on NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and ESPN’s “Monday Night Football.”
Postseason success could change that. “The league is littered with guys who have had good seasons — in fact, great seasons — but couldn’t win in the playoffs,” Shabelman said. “And that’s when the majority of the spotlight is really on them.”
Like every hold-your-breath scramble by Jackson, corporate sponsorships are a risk for player and company alike. On the field, injuries can weaken advertising campaigns. Off-field incidents can end them. Greenwood also cautioned against deal oversaturation, which can be a burden on players like Mayfield and hurt the value of partnerships to brands.
The key, experts say, is for Jackson to find companies that will treat him as the Ravens have, with his potential embraced and his worth recognized. Whether he’s selling home insurance or heavy-duty pickups, "it’s going to have to be the right type of fit,” Jensen said. “But definitely, the sky’s the limit.”