What Brett Favre's Comeback Reveals About Sports Sponsorships

From a marketing standpoint, Brett Favre is back. His comeback reveals a lot about sports sponsorships.

Aug 10, 2014 at 10:26AM

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Jame Healy, Flickr.

In his heyday, Brett Favre wasn't just one of the NFL's best players, he was also one of its most marketable. While he still owns a handful of all-time records, a major scandal hurt his relationship with fans and sponsors. But things on that front are now looking up. The Green Bay Packers have announced they will retire the QB's jersey and induct him into the team's Hall of Fame next summer. With critics jumping back on board, Favre's comeback reveals a lot about the world of sports sponsorships.

Favre's fall, and recovery
At his peak, Favre made somewhere between $7 million and $9 million per year from endorsements as a Packer, and later as a member of the Jets and Vikings. His sponsors ranged from MasterCard to Nike (NYSE:NKE) to Snapper to -- most famously -- VF Corporation's (NYSE:VFC) Wrangler jeans.

Sexting allegations in late 2010 changed all that. Seemingly overnight, the public began to doubt Favre's future as an endorsable athlete. "Why Brett Favre's Penis Pics Will Kill His Ad Deals...," CBS News wrote; "Favre's Photo Folly May Cost Him $100 Million," Forbes added. While Wrangler and Snapper ultimately stuck with Favre, polls show just 26% of Wisconsinites liked Favre at that time, PPP reports. He retired soon after. 

The immediate aftermath was what most expected: Less publicity, aside from the occasional update about his high school coaching career. According to Google Trends, web search interest in Favre fell by 87% between 2010 and 2012. But like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, and other stars with scandals before, Favre's image has slowly recovered. 

Favre's approval rating in Wisconsin hit 50% last fall, according to PPP, and more visibly, his name has been linked to endorsements with pain cream Rx Pro, YOLO paddle boards, and Foot Locker. Favre's appearance in a Foot Locker ad, in particular, came while wearing Nike gear -- the video has more than 7 million views on YouTube. Millions more likely watched Favre analyze the Super Bowl this year, when he temporarily joined NFL Network's broadcast.

What's this tell us about the sponsorship world?
Favre's fall and subsequent recovery also illustrate a couple larger truths about the business of sports sponsorships. For one, it shows troubled athletes can regain their marketability. Woods is another example; Bryant, Michael Vick, and Michael Phelps are more.

Woods led all pro athletes with $55 million in endorsement income last season, according to Forbes, just four years after an enormous infidelity scandal. Bryant, meanwhile, is regularly among the NBA's highest earners, despite a high-profile sexual-assault allegation that caused multiple sponsors to drop him a decade ago.

And while Vick's 2007 dog-fighting conviction made him the NFL's most hated player, he's since signed on with Nike, along with a seven-figure deal from MusclePharm. Phelps, lastly, lost Kellogg's sponsorship during a marijuana controversy in 2009, but was named Forbes' fifth-most-influential athlete just two years later.

Less obviously, it also matters whether or not a scandal is performance-related. Favre, Woods, Vick, Phelps, and Bryant's were not. Disgraced athletes who haven't recovered, on the other hand, had problems that led many to directly question their athletic ability. Barry Bonds, Lance Armstrong, and Sammy Sosa are just a few examples. All three were among Forbes' highest-paid athletes a decade ago -- now they're endorsement pariahs.

Why companies stick with troubled athletes
Fans and sponsors forgive -- it just takes time. Still, that doesn't mean it's not a risk for companies to support disgraced stars. So why would a company choose to sign a Favre, Vick, or Bryant, rather than a player who's in the good graces of fans at that moment?

As Yahoo! Sports' Michael Jones explains, it's sometimes possible to spin scandal into a positive light if the circumstances are right. "Society enjoys an underdog story," he writes. "When athletes make mistakes, it humanizes them. Fans and casual onlookers alike enjoy contrition and thrive on humility. It could even be argued that overcoming challenges such as these can actually elevate the status of some sports figures."

In recent years, the most pertinent example of this was Nike's "Winning takes care of everything" ad, centered on Tiger Woods. The message essentially told fans, and Nike customers, to look past Woods' mistakes, and focus on his athletic dominance. 

Further, sponsors may also choose to hold onto a troubled athlete even if they don't turn his transgressions into a marketing opportunity. Just as some shareholders won't sell a stock after poor quarterly earnings, companies with millions invested in a star can choose to ride out bad press. It may simply be more expensive to find a replacement.

VF and Wrangler, for instance, chose to do so with Favre, maintaining a half-decade relationship. His latest TV spot, alongside the wholesome Drew Brees and Dale Earnhardt, Jr., shows the company is aware fans are beginning to forgive Favre. Phelps is another example -- Omega and Speedo shrugged off the swimmer's criticisms, but didn't exactly use his mistakes to sell their products.

Looking ahead
For Brett Favre, the main takeaway is this: Sponsors that stood by the QB are now vindicated. Looking ahead, he's likely set for more exposure on NFL Network, and other ad appearances are possible leading up to next summer's festivities at Lambeau Field. Given that Favre is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2016, another marketability boost is conceivable then, too.

And like others before him, Favre's comeback reveals fans will forgive scandalous stars if the circumstances are right. In the future, when sports sponsors are deciding whether or not to drop a client, they should ask: Does the issue force fans to question the athlete's performance? If not, it may be worth sticking around.

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Jake Mann has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Nike. The Motley Fool owns shares of Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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