Fantasy sports site Pro Draft League's $1 million endorsement offer to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice last Friday tested the bounds of society’s willingness to forgive. It was also the latest example of stunt advertising involving a fallen star by a fledgling brand in a competitive industry.
“To us, it feels like he’s remorseful and he’s sincere about his apologies. We noticed that nobody has picked him up. We felt like it was a good time to extend the olive branch and try to give the guy a chance to clean up his image,” said Mark Tadro, Pro Draft League’s chief executive officer, in a telephone interview.
Endorsement offers to troubled athletes are a recurring strategy for local or start-up brands attempting to carve out a bigger portion of the market share, as evidenced by past offers involving disgraced stars like Milwaukee Brewers slugger Ryan Braun and eccentric NBA Hall of Famer Dennis Rodman, marketing experts said. Competition in the fantasy sports industry is fierce, particularly amid the rising popularity of sites that offer daily contests. Daily fantasy sports site FanDuel raised $88 million in investment group funding last year and reached a sponsorship deal with the NBA. DraftKings Inc. experienced similar success, raising $41 million in funding last August and establishing a partnership with the NHL.
Rice issued a statement of apology to the city of Baltimore and to the Ravens for his actions last week just hours after the brand went public with the terms of a potential endorsement contract. Neither Rice nor his representatives ever acknowledged the company’s offer. But Rice’s name was in the headlines at an opportune moment.
Tadro acknowledged Friday that the company “hasn’t spoken” to Rice and that “there’s no indication yet” if he would be interested in the endorsement deal. It's unclear if Pro Draft League truly intends to sign Rice to the endorsement deal or if the offer simply represents a cheap way for a fledgling company to capitalize on his public notoriety without paying a dime, multiple experts said.
“I would say [the offer] is ingenious. Before today, I didn’t know who they were. Today I read a story about Ray Rice connected to them, and now suddenly there’s something in my mind about [the website], I may give it some consideration,” said Marty Conway, an adjunct professor of sports management at Georgetown University.
Launched in December 2014 and based in Canada, Pro Draft League offers season-long, daily and weekly contests to its users. It’s a young brand with audacious goals for the future and willingness to consider unorthodox methods to generate publicity.
“What we’re trying to do is be as original as we can be with the media and to get the word out, so we’ve been coming up with some ‘outside the box’ kind of thoughts,” Tadros said.
The first of those thoughts was the site’s banned Super Bowl commercial, which poked fun at the NFL’s various recent scandals and declared “Thank God Football Season is Ending. Time to Play Fantasy Hockey.” Pro Draft League said NBC officials told them the NFL would not approve the commercial. But it had the desired effect – Entertainment Weekly named the ad its No. 2 best “banned” Super Bowl commercial of all-time. And Tadros never had to pay the $4.5 million price tag for a 30-second spot.
“If you spent your life in the advertising agency business, or teaching it, you wouldn’t be proud of this. But in terms of gaining awareness, absolute [it’s effective],” said John Verret, an associate professor of advertising at Boston University in Massachusetts.
Baseball cleat manufacturer 3N2 employed a similar marketing strategy in March 2014, when it became became the first brand to offer Braun a contract since his suspension for performance-enhancing drug use. The deal’s terms were not disclosed, but the company president Marty Graham told ESPN Braun will be paid “a fraction” of what he earned before Nike terminated its contract with him. At the time, 3N2 justified the offer to Braun in much the same way that Pro Draft League justified its offer to Rice.
Rice, 28, saw his commercial appeal and football career vanish after he knocked his wife unconscious in an Atlantic City elevator a year ago. He has spent recent months rehabilitating his image after surveillance footage of his domestic assault on then-girlfriend and current wife Janay Palmer leaked to the public in September. The NFL suspended Rice indefinitely, the Ravens terminated his multimillion contract and major sponsors like Nike and EA Sports’ Madden video game franchise tore up existing endorsement deals.
The three-time Pro Bowl selection received a slight reprieve on Dec. 1, when an independent arbitrator overturned his indefinite suspension and reinstated him to the NFL. Rice still intends to play in the league and has moved back to his home state of New York to pursue that goal. His apology last week was the latest in a series of attempts to earn the public’s forgiveness.
If he accepts the Pro Draft League deal, Rice would receive a base salary of $500,000, plus another $500,000 if the site meets unspecified membership goals. He would have to commit to 30 media interviews, a pair of television commercials, a weekly fantasy football analysis column and more, according to TMZ Sports. Plus, he’d have to pay $1 million in damages for any future transgression that tarnished the site’s reputation. It’s not exactly the best deal for a player in the midst of an NFL comeback bid.
Brands have always sought to capitalize on the newsworthiness of controversial figures. Former MLB star and admitted gambler Pete Rose, eccentric NBA Hall of Fame inductee Dennis Rodman and former professional boxer Mike Tyson have all enjoyed a stream of endorsement offers despite their reputations.
In Rodman’s case, a local Chicago bar once used his outlandish antics to market a drink special, said Scott Kirkpatrick, partner at marketing firm Chicago Sports & Entertainment Partners in Illinois. Mark Swiatkowski, owner of the now-shuttered Joy Blue tavern in Chicago, offered free drinks to customers and donations to the charity of Rodman’s choice if he agreed to dye his hair blue ahead of the 1996 NBA Playoffs, according to the Chicago Tribune.
“It got coverage, it didn’t cost anything, because he wasn’t going to do it. And if he did do it, everyone would know about the bar,” Kirkpatrick said.
There are some risks to Pro Draft League’s association with Rice, namely the negative publicity the brand would incur if he accepted the offer only to engage in the sort of behavior that resulted in his downfall. But for a new brand in the midst of a bid to climb the ranks of the fantasy sports industry, the free publicity was well-worth it, experts said.
“Given their position in the marketplace, I don’t know, quite honestly, that there’s any downside to this offer,” said Conway. “Maybe the downside is that [Rice] actually accepts it and they’d have to pay it out.”