The Johnny Manziel Marketing Blitz Shouldn’t Raise Flags

April 14, 2014
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There are differing opinions regarding the average career of a National Football League player, the length of which teeters somewhere between three-and-a-half and seven years.

The National Football League Players Association shortens the average playing career by factoring in every player who ever puts on a helmet and pads, while the NFL conveniently chooses to exclude players who have never made an opening day roster.

In reality, most NFL careers never last longer than few paychecks, while a lucky few span more than a decade. It’s for this reason many joke that NFL is an acronym for “Not For Long.”

Apparently the joke is lost on first-year Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer.

Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel may be the most intriguing player in this year’s NFL Draft class. An undersized athlete with outsized talent, Manziel dazzled college football fans during his two seasons at Texas A&M with his uncanny ability to improvise on broken plays and produce countless “Did he really just do that?” moments. Along the way, Manziel became a ratings-booster for ESPN, made friends with pop culture luminaries like LeBron James and Drake, and earned the type of celebrity treatment few “student-athletes” ever experience.

Manziel may not be the most talented player in this year’s NFL draft, but he is certainly its most marketable. Before taking his first snap as a pro, Manziel already has inked an endorsement deal with Nike and made a brief cameo in a McDonald’s commercial (above, at the 0:12 mark) starring LeBron James. The latter opportunity drew the ire of Zimmer, who, after meeting with Manziel for a pre-draft interrogation/dinner, had the following to say to a sports talk radio show in Austin, Texas (according to the Minneapolis Star Tribune):

“We asked him all kinds of questions. …There are some flags that come up. All of the things that happened out in Los Angeles, the commercials and all that stuff; the position of quarterback in the NFL is such an important position and the reason these guys need to be a totally football-minded guy is the pressure of the position and being the face of an NFL team and doing everything right.”

Defending Manziel on the field may pose a challenge, but defending his off-the-field business decisions are quite simple. Critics like Zimmer offer that Manziel should be entirely focused on football leading up to the draft, but that would be ignoring a few simple facts:

  • NFL playing careers are short.
  • The window to generate income is limited.
  • Passing on financial opportunities — especially off-the-field — is reckless.

We football fans like to pretend our favorite players are completely absorbed by the game every minute of every day, year-round. But knowing everything we do about head injuries and the long-term effects of playing football, the Manziel business plan strikes me as common sense: Make money wherever you can, whenever you can, while you can. Frankly, it’s never too early to start signing endorsement deals, because all it takes is a losing season or two, cries of “Bust!” or even one off-the-field incident and, suddenly, those opportunities disappear.

Old-school coaches like Zimmer aren’t programmed to think this way, which is a shame. As the branding and marketing of athletes becomes more aggressive and sophisticated at earlier stages in their playing careers — and, in some cases, prior to the athletes experiencing any professional success — it behooves someone like Zimmer to remember the business side of the game.