Despite suit, Big Ben still sells
As Ben Roethlisberger was standing at a podium Thursday, with a somber expression and a vow to fight a sexual assault allegation, Dick's Sporting Goods was kicking off an aggressive television ad campaign that features the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback.
At least for now, support for Roethlisberger appears to remain strong in the corporate world, and particularly in Pittsburgh, where he's led the Steelers to two Super Bowl victories in the past four seasons. This comes in the wake of Andrea McNulty, a 31-year-old Lake Tahoe casino hostess, filing a civil lawsuit alleging Roethlisberger raped her in a hotel penthouse while he was in Nevada for a celebrity golf tournament in July 2008.
"Our view is we're going full speed ahead with the [ad] campaign," said Jeff Hennion, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Pittsburgh-based Dick's Sporting Goods. "We need to let the legal proceedings play out. And until there is a point where there is some closure to the legal proceedings, there is no reason for us to make any change in the campaign.
"You have to understand that we live in Pittsburgh, so we're kind of in the eye of the media storm over the last week. We worked with Ben for years on a number of different projects. Like everybody, as people who live in Pittsburgh and know Ben, we were surprised, and we're just trying to keep up with the story.''
Hennion said there was never consideration of pulling Roethlisberger from the ad campaign before its national debut Thursday. As of Friday afternoon, he said reaction to the campaign was 90 percent favorable.
The sporting goods company is the title sponsor for what is billed as Dick's Sporting Goods/ESPN Football Kickoff Week, which is the lead-up to the opening of the college football season on the sports cable network. Dick's also has partnered with Nike in the multiplatform campaign. One of the featured games will be the first at the new Dallas Cowboys stadium, promoted as Dick's Sporting Goods/Cowboys Classic.
Roethlisberger and two other NFL All-Pros -- Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson and Oakland Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha -- appear in the Dick's ad campaign, which runs through Labor Day. Roethlisberger, one of the leading faces of the NFL, also is featured on the cover of catalogues mailed out this week by Dick's Sporting Goods.
"Those TV ads are probably the best public vote of confidence he could have,'' said Scott Becher, president of Sports & Sponsorships, a national sports marketing agency. "He's got a large company staking its reputation on their belief that he is OK, saying that he is a good guy. That kind of very visible support is helpful to his image.
"They could have pulled those [commercials] in a heartbeat. So that is bold."
Since he led the Steelers to the first of his two Super Bowl wins in 2006, Roethlisberger has been hugely popular in western Pennsylvania and throughout the league. His name is plastered on everything in Pittsburgh, from a barbecue sauce (Big Ben's BBQ Sauce) to the "Roethlisburgers" being sold at a sandwich joint.
PLB Sports in Pittsburgh also sells Roethlisberger's Big Ben's Beef Jerky -- both original and teriyaki flavored. To coincide with the start of NFL training camp, the line is being extended with the introduction of a peppered beef jerky.
"Everything is fine and status quo," said Ty Ballou, president of PLB Sports. "Ben is probably one of the most popular athletes we deal with. He has done extremely well. So nothing has changed. I just hope this gets resolved and it comes to a good ending."
Mike Fish is an investigative reporter for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.