- John Helyar, Sports Business
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Tony Romo has a Texas-sized heap of motives to beat the New England Patriots on Sunday. Just for starters: keeping the Dallas Cowboys unbeaten, establishing their bona fides as Super Bowl contenders and atoning for his five-interception game in Buffalo.
His agents are geeked for him to have a great day, too. It would keep up the momentum in their drive to build Brand Romo. He's already on the move as a commercial force. His No. 9 jersey is the fifth best-selling of all NFL players. It's the top seller among kids. He's done TV commercials for AT&T in Texas and nationally for Diet Pepsi Max (though Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is the star of the spot) and ESPN's "SportsCenter."
And, according to his marketing representative R.J. Gonser of Creative Artists Agency, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
"It's the perfect storm with Tony," Gonser says of Romo's endorsement potential. "You've got the cachet of Tony being quarterback of the Dallas Cowboys and being a dynamic person."
Hey, what's not to like? Those 300-plus-yard passing games that make fantasy-league geeks swoon they're only the beginning. Romo is a good-looking guy associated with glamorous ladies like singer Carrie Underwood. Yet he also has an aura of underdog made good -- the undrafted quarterback out of Eastern Illinois. Even his name sounds great. If only his heritage were Mediterranean -- how could you go wrong with a chain of Italian restaurants called Tony Romo's?
As it is, however, the key part of his ethnicity is Hispanic. Even though Romo grew up in Wisconsin and doesn't speak much Spanish, his grandparents are natives of Mexico. So he's got crossover Latino appeal, too. The NFL has used him in marketing campaigns to increase the game's Hispanic fan base. A print ad promoting the Sept. 23 Dallas-Chicago game and Hispanic Heritage Month showed photos of Romo and the Bears' Roberto Garza.
There's just one thing not to like, actually. Romo doesn't yet have the body of on-field work to be in the same pitchman league as Peyton Manning. Sports-marketing experts agree (with the exception of agent Gonser): If Romo is to become a really hot commodity, he must play in January, and even February. If he can take the Cowboys deep into the playoffs -- preferably to the Super Bowl -- the endorsement world is his oyster.
"He's doing all the right things and he's playing in the right market," says Bob Dorfman, a San Francisco ad executive who compiles the Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "Now it's a question of performing on the field."
Only one year removed from being a backup quarterback, Romo has been a mercurial performer. He ranges from great to awful -- sometimes, as on Monday night in Buffalo, in the same game. After taking over for Drew Bledsoe last October, he was an instant hero in Dallas. But after a hot early streak, the Cowboys lost three of their last four regular-season games. Their season ended in the first round of the playoffs, when Romo botched the snap on a possible game-winning field goal attempt.
At that point, he was less the toast of Madison Avenue than the butt of comedians' jokes.
"As you know, Tony Romo dropped the ball on a field goal attempt, costing the Dallas Cowboys the game," said Jay Leno of the "Tonight Show." "But the good news is today he picked up an endorsement deal. It's the 'Tony Romo's Butterfinger.'"
After everything had gone wrong with that snap, however, Romo did a lot of things right. He didn't throw a TO-style hissy fit. He openly, graciously took the blame. That only ratcheted up his likability factor.
Then he went out and got himself some terrific nongridiron exposure, while also having a terrific time. Romo escorted Underwood to the Country Music Awards. He judged the Miss Universe pageant.
"Stuff like that is key," says an agent for another NFL player, noting how this propelled Romo beyond the universe of football junkies and into that of celebrity junkies. "It gets you on 'Entertainment Tonight' and 'Extra.'"
Romo's endorsement potential is best reflected in his work for AT&T, which is using him to advertise its television services. The spots, which began running in August, show Romo handling a remote as deftly as a football. Though the telecom giant is showing them only in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, it might take Romo national as a spokesman, according to agent Gonser. (Bill Moseley, a corporate sponsorship manager for AT&T, says the company is pleased with Romo and will evaluate him for broader use.)
Certainly the company's hiring of Romo wasn't based only on his iconic status in Cowboy-land. It was based on national survey data compiled by Davie Brown Talent, an agency which gauges celebrity appeal for corporate advertisers. The firm ranked him the 11th-best active NFL player in terms of appeal, influence, trust and other qualities that go into the making of its Davie Brown Index.
"He lacks just one thing to elevate him into the upper echelon of marketability in the NFL," says Scott Sanford, senior client director at Davie Brown. "That's consistency. Show us this isn't just a flash in the pan."
Consider what Peyton Manning had to accomplish to become a Most Valuable Pitchman, with estimated endorsement income of $11.5 million in 2006. Though already a commodity coming into the NFL -- star at Tennessee, son of Archie -- he had to win two MVPs (in 2003 and 2004) and set a record for touchdown passes (48, in 2004) before most of his endorsement opportunities kicked in.
For the most part, athletes must build their identities and brands with fans and companies over a longer period of time than has Romo, according to Frank Vuono, whose 16W Marketing firm represents retired NFL stars like Phil Simms, Boomer Esiason and Howie Long. In addition, he notes, "The Michael Vick situation has made companies leery of signing active players."
Though Romo seems squeaky-clean -- other than occasional appearances with a heavy-metal tribute rock band -- other sports marketers also mention the Vick factor as a possible limit on Romo's prospects. Companies have so many other ways to affiliate themselves with the NFL -- by, say, being a league or team sponsor -- that some now wonder why they should take a chance on a player.
But Gonser, his agent, sees no lack of interest in Romo and scoffs at the notion his client needs to compile more of a track record. The exploratory calls keep pouring in from corporate America, he asserts. It's just a matter of which ones Romo chooses to ponder.
He'll only consider opportunities which fit his offseason schedule, which fit his personality and interests -- and which meet his parents' approval. Ramiro and Joan Romo have considerable influence in these decisions, according to Gonser -- along with the CAA team of course.
Says Gonser: "He's turned down 95 percent of the opportunities and they're going to continue coming in."
John Helyar is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He previously covered the business of sports for The Wall Street Journal and Fortune magazine and is the author of "Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball."