He's winding up; now it's time for Eli to make his pitch
Eli Manning entered the season not only disrespected as a player -- thanks, Tiki -- but disregarded as a commercial endorser, too. At best, he was a supporting actor in TV spots by the Manning family troupe, featuring big brother Peyton and dad Archie.
This, obviously, is not as automatic as an extra point. Manning is facing the undefeated New England Patriots in the unrelenting pressure of sport's brightest, harshest spotlight. If he crumbles under that pressure, he's only Rex Grossman with a pedigree.
Touted young quarterbacks need to deliver the goods on the big stage or at least look good losing, as Manning did in the Giants' 38-35 loss to the Patriots in Week 17. They don't have a body of work to fall back on that would excuse a one-game letdown.
That said, everything sure looks teed up for Manning. He plays in the media capital of the world. He hails from one of football's first families. He's shed the rap as a mere middling quarterback by leading the Giants to 10 straight road wins, including upset playoff victories over Dallas and Green Bay.
Manning is that, and what's more, he's become more poised both in the pocket and with the media.
"He was the 'aw shucks' kid for so long, but I think there's been a change in his demeanor," says Vuono, now chief operating officer of the United Football League. "He's been handling the press pretty well."
He's also picked up lots of experience in commercials by playing sidekick to Peyton in spots for Double Stuf Oreos, DirecTV, ESPN and nflshop.com. Between those gigs, a solo spot for Citizen Watch and a shoe deal with Reebok, sports marketing experts estimate Eli Manning already makes $2 million annually in endorsements. (Peyton's off-field income is estimated at $13 million a year.)
But quite apart from his Super Bowl showing, Manning can only take his pitchman game to the next level by showing more personality.
"Clearly, his brother got most of the charisma genes in that family," says Dorfman, an executive at the San Francisco ad agency Baker Street Partners. "At some point, he has to step out of Peyton's shadow."
The Cowboys' quarterback -- and Jessica Simpson's boyfriend -- illustrates how slippery the road to football fame and off-field fortune can be. In midseason, Romo looked more like Madison Avenue's next darling. He and the Cowboys were on a roll, and he was the poster boy for the NFL's Hispanic marketing push. But after his infamous trip to Mexico with Simpson and his team's inglorious exit from the playoffs -- some critics think there was a connection -- his star has at least temporarily faded.
Now, Eli Manning has surpassed Romo as a marketable item, according to research by Davie Brown Entertainment, which gauges celebrity appeal for corporate advertisers. Manning started the season with the second-lowest rating on the Davie Brown Index (the DBI measures such qualities as appeal, influence and trust) among NFL quarterbacks, beating only Matt Hasselbeck. He ranked third-highest by the end of the regular season, behind only brother Peyton and Tom Brady.
"If he takes down Goliath, he'll have a lot of opportunities this offseason," says Scott Sanford, the senior client director at Davie Brown. "If he plays well while losing, he'll make gains, too."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."
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