There has been a ton of talk lately about comebacks. Michael Vick. Tiger Woods. LeBron James. The topic began to catch heat (pun intended) when LeBron and his new team returned to Cleveland. More comback talk was generated when Tiger launched his social media campaign and then had a shot at winning the Chevron World Challenge earlier this month. The most recent comeback discussion is being generated by Michael Vick, whose stellar play has people wondering if he has a shot at a full comeback. AdAge chimed in here: http://adage.com/article?article_id=147726.
I think people are way too quick to declare that an athlete who previously fell from grace has made a comeback. It is important to note that a comeback on the court/field does not equate a comeback on Madison Avenue. While there is no question that on court/field performance is the most important factor in determining athlete marketability, character counts almost as much. Here’s the athlete marketability equation as defined our group:
Athlete Marketability = (Talent+Success)+(Integrity+Charisma)
It is really that simple. You show me an athlete with all of those components and I’ll show you an icon. Falls from grace almost always come in the integrity department. Tiger, Kobe, LeBron and Vick all took hits when they were at the top of their games. The only thing that suffered for each of them was their integrity. Vick is only talked about now because of his stellar play. He is nowhere near returning to the good graces of major brands.
In Kobe’s case, although his stellar on court performance has him back in the good graces of basketball fans, he is not yet embraced by mainstream brands such as McDonald’s. Kobe was the All-American boy. Although he is clearly one of the greatest professional athletes in the world, he has not returned to the athlete icon mountaintop. Yes Nike stood by him, and Vitamin Water uses him in their offbeat spots. But you don’t see Kobe in mainstream ads for McDonald’s. He isn’t appearing in Gillette ads alongside Derek Jeter. And I don’t expect that he ever will.
If Tiger starts winning championships again, as I imagine he will, I expect for him a path similar to Kobe’s. There will likely be a sponsor or two who takes a shot. When they do, you’ll read stories about Tiger’s comeback. But will Accenture ever bring him back? Will Buick? Will Gatorade? I doubt it.
LeBron remains the enigma. He had everyone convinced he was a hometown, loyal kid. That was his brand. He shattered it when he said “I’m taking my talents to South Beach”. Now he’s one of the most hated athletes in the world. I really don’t ever see him winning back fans in New York, Chicago or Ohio. Even if the Heat win the multiple championships that they’re expected to, I see them as more like the Detroit Pistons of the 80′s. They’re the new Bad Boys. I think LeBron’s best shot is to embrace that role and not attempt to convince people that he’s any kind of a golden boy.
The bottom line is that in my view, an athlete who falls from grace can never really make it all the way back to the mountaintop. Some have come close, but I’ve never seen anyone make it all the way back. In the eyes of fans, perhaps. But Madison Avenue isn’t very forgiving. Behind every fallen athlete is a marketing executive who has to take the heat for signing them. In athlete marketing, a reputation is the hardest thing to build and the easiest thing to destroy.