The Ndamukong Suh Stomp and his subsequent two-game suspension have been all over TV, been a talk-radio discussion centerpiece and dominated sports news reports since Thursday.
It’s not quite what Nike, Chrysler, Omaha Steaks, Subway and a few local Detroit businesses that signed sponsorship deals with him the past two years had in mind to be sure.
Yet despite speculation about what Suh’s actions might be doing to his personal brand, there isn’t much precedent for a company dropping an athlete for strictly on-the-field actions (unless performance-enhancing drugs are considered.) The most notable athletes to lose endorsements -- Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Michael Phelps, and Kobe Bryant, to name a few -- were dropped based on conduct in their personal lives.
Chrysler is standing by Suh: “We have an ad campaign in place and have no plans to change it,” said Dianna Gutierrez, senior manager, marketing, advertising and product communications.
Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon, remembers one athlete who actually saw increased endorsements after so-called dirty play: Zinedine Zidane. After he head butted an opponent in the 2006 World Cup, Zidane’s sponsors stood by him as his fame in and outside France soared.
"It just added one more layer to his personality," Lucien Boyer, head of Havas Sports, a unit of advertising company Havas SA told the Wall Street Journal in 2006. "It made him profoundly human." In the same article, others in sports marketing agreed, saying the incident only increased his appeal by turning him into a household name worldwide.
Swangard acknowledges Zidane’s case is different than Suh’s, and that there’s an element of nationalism in the post-head butting marketing phenomenon that surrounded the French soccer player.
Tampax didn’t back away from Serena Williams after her verbal assault of a U.S. Open lineswoman in 2009. A few weeks after the incident, a Tampax television ad showcased Williams' aggression on the court as she fired a forehand shot at a character known as “Mother Nature.”
Frances Croke Page, vice president and director of entertainment media for media communications agency RJ Palmer, said the player endorsement game is all about matching the athlete’s personality to the right brand: “A tough image, even to the point of suspensions in football or hockey, might be less difficult to transform into storytelling that a brand would find beneficial, given the right circumstances.”
While a bad-boy image might not get Suh endorsements with companies that produce children’s products or strive for a family-friendly image, trendy beverage companies, apparel and footwear companies might be less concerned and even embrace such an image. The question Suh and his agent will need to discuss is whether carrying that style of personal brand is the right path long term.