Former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice's career in professional sports may be over after a video of him punching his fiancé in an elevator at an Atlantic City casino appeared on TMZ.com. His career as a product endorser has likely come to an end as well.
A slew of sponsors dropped Rice yesterday including Nike (NKE), the largest maker of athletic apparel, and exercise equipment maker Vertimax. Electronic Arts (EA) has cut the former Rutgers University star from its popular Madden NFL 15 video game.
Forbes estimated that Rice earned about $1.6 million from endorsements last year. To make matters worse, the Ravens allowed fans to swap their Ray Rice jerseys for other those of players, while sporting goods retailers cleared off merchandise associated with Rice.
Though pro football player Michael Vick rehabilitated his reputation and restarted his career after he was jailed on federal dog-fighting charges, and pro golfer Tiger Woods weathered a firestorm of negative publicity after admitting to infidelities, Rice's situation is different. He was a good NFL player but not quite a perennial superstar. He ranked 30th last season in rushing, down from No. 11 in 2012, which makes him a tougher sell to corporate America. Vick, who is a quarterback, and Woods were at the top of their game before their fall from grace.
"It's difficult to imagine a brand marketer willing to take a chance on him," said Bill Daddi, founder of Daddi Brand Communications, in an interview. "I don't see how this would be possible."
Vick's and Wood's endorsement careers haven't been without challenges. According to Q Scores, they haven't regained the reputations they once had before their scandals. Earlier this year, online auction house Qibids withdrew an endorsement from Vick after users objected. Some animal lovers refused to cheer for the Philadelphia Eagles, which signed Vick in 2009, as long as he was with the team. He's now the backup for the New York Jets' Geno Smith.
Last year, EA ended its relationship with Woods after selling 16 versions of its eponymous video game. Considered one of the greatest golfers in history, Woods isn't hurting. He counts Rolex and Warren Buffett's NetJets as sponsors.
And Nike not only stood by Woods, it extended its relationship with him in 2013 because as, Golfweek noted, "Virtually single-handedly, he legitimized Nike, known foremost as an athletic shoe and apparel company, as a golf brand."
In 2010, Rice had a Q Score of 18, meaning 18 percent of people considered him to be one of their favorite sports personalities. That was above the average score of 16. As of April, after details emerged of the incident with Rice's finance Janay, whom he later married, his score dropped to 15. During that same period, Rice's name recognition jumped from 47 percent to 59 percent.
"Pictures speak louder than words," said Henry Schafer, an executive vice president at Q Scores, in an interview. "That image is going to stick in everybody's mind for a long time. From the point of sponsors, he's toxic."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who suspended Rice indefinitely, hasn't ruled out allowing him to return to the game some day. Those remarks, however, may further enrage critics of the country's most popular professional sports league. The National Organization for Women and ESPN commentator Keith Olbermann have called on Goodell to resign because before the new video became public, he had only suspended Rice for two games.
Now, the running back will have a lot more time on his hands, but not many commercials to make.
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