Sunday's Super Bowl was widely considered a snoozer by fans, a jumbled mess of fumbles, interceptions and overall sloppy chaos. But the maestro of that madness was Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller, who disrupted the Carolina Panthers' offense so completely that he was named the game's MVP, just the fourth defensive player to earn the honor in the last 19 seasons.
In winning the award, Miller, already a superstar to dedicated NFL fans, had a coming-out party as the nation watched. But offensive players, quarterbacks especially, have typically dominated the NFL from both a fan’s perspective as well as marketing-wise. So it could still prove a tough task for Miller to convert his dream season with a perfect finale in Super Bowl 50 into endorsement dollars, sports marketing experts said.
"Von Miller has an engaging personality and is a dominant player, obviously," said Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and professor at the Girard School of Business at Merrimack College in North Andover, Massachusetts. "But it's challenging for defensive players, no matter how dominant, to score big in the endorsement game."
— NFL (@NFL) February 8, 2016
Winning Super Bowl MVP is usually an honor reserved for quarterbacks, as they're usually the face of the franchise who have won more the award than half the time in the game's half-century history. Miller earned the rare defensive nod by registering six tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles that were both recovered by his team, with the first one being picked up for a touchdown. He spent a good portion of the game in the Carolina backfield, going after Panthers QB and NFL MVP Cam Newton. It was a showing NFL fans have come to expect from the All-Pro, and coupled with the MVP honor, he stands to capitalize on the rare national spotlight being focused on a defensive player.
"Generally it might be tougher for defensive players to get noticed, but this was such a dominant performance and both sacks and fumbles led directly to touchdowns -- it was easy for everyone to see his contribution," said John Fortunato, a professor with an expertise in sports marketing at Fordham University’s business school in New York City, in an email. "Certainly this will help make marketing opportunities possible."
— NFL (@NFL) February 8, 2016
Most of the country watched Miller's dominance live, with the Broncos-Panthers matchup earning a 49.0 overnight rating, the second-highest ever for the Super Bowl behind last year's game. That's a massive audience watching the linebacker run through a team that had previously lost just once all season.
On-field performance, however, can only do so much for endorsement opportunities. While Miller finished eighth in the league in sacks during the regular season, another attribute will likely serve him well as he explores marketing opportunities: his affability. In a recent ESPN profile, teammates described him as a "big kid," as exemplified by his unique eyeglasses, and Miller expressed his retirement dream of raising chickens in Texas.
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He also made all the right moves after being named MVP, crediting his coaches and expressing his desire to share the trophy with his teammates. "It was very rarely an 'I or a me,'" said Matt Delzell, managing director at the Dallas, Texas, office of the Marketing Arm, a marketing and promotion agency that measures consumer sentiment. Winning the award is important, Delzell said, but how consumers judge your reaction is also a major concern of marketers.
Compared to with someone like Seattle Seahawks linebacker Malcolm Smith, who surprisingly won the award in 2014, Miller has a number of other factors working with him that could help him capitalize on the rare Super Bowl MVP win, Delzell added.
"Number one he's young and number two he's a free agent ... Super Bowl MVP and a free agent -- he'll have some headlines, he'll be able to remain relevant during the offseason," he said, also adding Miller has "pizzazz" and the physical benefit of standing out through his unusual eyewear.
There's plenty good going for Miller, but if you're not a quarterback -- and especially if you're a defensive player -- it's a long road to making major endorsement dollars in the NFL. For defensive players, three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt is the gold standard.
Forbes ranked the top-nine highest paid NFL stars in 2015 by endorsements and among the group there was just one defensive player: Houston Texans defensive end Watt. Seven of the top earners were quarterbacks -- Miller's teammate Peyton Manning topped the list by bringing in $12 million from endorsements -- and one, Marshawn Lynch, was a running back. Watt's outgoing off-field personality and long-term dominance have opened marketing doors from brands like Papa John's and Verizon Wireless, which are typically closed to players not throwing touchdowns.
While very familiar to diehard NFL fans, to the common American, Miller was still relatively unknown heading into the Super Bowl. Just 27 percent of consumers knew of him to some degree, according to data from the Marketing Arm.
"The problem with football players in general is they just don’t get a lot of face-time, they're always covered by helmets and big pads, it's really tough to see who they are as they're playing," said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising in San Francisco. Quarterbacks have the benefit of touching the ball nearly every play, and other skill positions -- notably wide receivers and running backs -- have the spotlight from scoring touchdowns. Miller's job is to make sure the most exciting thing about football doesn't happen.
His brand opportunities could also suffer from a 2013 six-game suspension for violating the NFL's drug policy. Paying an athlete for an endorsement is a risk and the "first thing an agency or a brand is going to do is going to look in his closet for skeletons," said Merrimack's Jensen.
Sports marketing experts said Miller could look to sign on as a part of a larger national campaign and that he was well-positioned as any defensive player -- outside of Watt -- to make a jump in endorsements. Miller's best shot might be to play up his dominance on the field and to sign with brands directly related to performance such as apparel companies or sports drinks, said Jensen. But it still might not be a major windfall for Miller. "I just don't see him capitalizing in a huge way on his performance," Jensen added.