Selling the city on a quarterback hoping to land a big score on the field and in business

By Rick Maese
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; G01

On the 12th and top floor of an Arlington building, the quarterback wore a sharp, five-button suit and led a huddle that numbered nearly five dozen.

The windows measure 12 feet tall in the Top of the Town banquet room and reveal one of the best views of Washington -- the Iwo Jima Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument -- but everyone was focused on the front of the room, where the quarterback sat next to a placard that read "Down to Business with Donovan McNabb."

"This isn't just, 'I'm coming here for a year or two and then I'm out of here,' " McNabb told the crowd of area businessmen, government leaders and inside-the-beltway movers and shakers in late July.

And when McNabb finished outlining his beliefs, his character and his goals, the Greater Washington Board of Trade reception adjourned to the back of the room and the sandwich-and-cheese platters in the middle. The Washington Redskins weren't scheduled to report to town for two more days, but his other team -- Team McNabb -- began working the room aggressively. The guest list included people from Bank of America, Verizon, the Smithsonian, Kaiser Permanente and the White House. Team McNabb wanted to shake every hand and let each guest know that the quarterback is going to be active in Washington and is actively looking for partners.

At 33, the Pro Bowl quarterback who's charting his reinvention on the field and beyond has landed with a team badly in need of a championship. McNabb himself is hoping to use his fresh start to reinvigorate his business goals off the field. For everything McNabb brings to the table, he has arrived in Washington without one key asset: a Super Bowl ring.

And in the world of sports endorsements, celebrity doesn't always land the big score. It usually comes down to championships.

"He has an uphill battle based on the fact that he has not won any championships," said Steve Trax, a principal in Bethesda-based MTX Wealth Management, which manages $350 million for 90 clients, most of whom are professional athletes. "Like it or not, in the public's eye, success on the playing field correlates to success in sales."

Team McNabb said its brand stands for leadership and being a warrior on the football field.

Since McNabb was traded to Washington in April, his brand, which has earned him more than $100 million in the past decade, has seen a resurgence, and Team McNabb intends to further capitalize on it. The reception at Top of the Town in Arlington, unusual in the world of athlete marketing, was just the first step.

McNabb's business adviser calls the move to the nation's capital "a renaissance" for the quarterback, and McNabb has aligned himself with new corporate partners, discussed plans to work with the White House and plotted ways to launch his brand to new heights.

"I don't see myself as this big name. I just see myself as Donovan," McNabb said in an interview. "My mom sees me as Little Donovan; my dad, just son; whatever it may be. But I know that from what I've been able to accomplish and the things that I've been able to do, that some things I say and do kind of goes a long way for some people."

'He is a winner'

Andrew Stroth is a Chicago-based attorney and serves as the business adviser on Team McNabb. When trade rumors began circulating with increased fervor last spring, he knew Washington would be a preferred destination. "Playing in the nation's capital gives Donovan access to a vibrant business community, a very committed philanthropic community, as well as the opportunity to work with the White House," Stroth said.

And when the deal finally went through bringing McNabb to the Redskins from the Philadelphia Eagles, Team McNabb didn't waste time developing its strategy. The goal has always been for McNabb "to transcend football," Stroth said, but the change of scenery put McNabb in a hub of opportunities unlike what he experienced in 11 years in Philadelphia.

"From our perspective, he's one of the elite quarterbacks in the NFL, and he's committed to winning a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins," Stroth said. "He is genuine. He is a winner. He is consistent."

Stroth said they're trying to emulate the Magic Johnson model that so many others such as Ronnie Lott, Roger Staubach and John Elway have successfully leveraged. McNabb is in discussions with several Washington area businesses in the technology and health-care sectors, hoping to get equity stakes in return for aligning his brand with those companies.

"Most athletes don't take the time, energy and effort to meet with CEOs and to be on conference calls and in meetings, cultivating relationships," Stroth said. "He is preparing each day for life beyond football."

It's a savvy strategy for a seasoned athlete: broaden the focus of his investments from endorsements to building ownership stakes in growing businesses.

This reinvention as a businessman can be challenging, according to Trax.

Instead of just taking fees to endorse a product, for instance, Johnson became an owner in a chain of theaters and in other growing properties. In effect, the athlete is an owner of a business that can create much greater wealth than a simple promotional fee.

"Magic was smart enough to connect with the right people in the business community, which helped him build a brand and connect with business opportunities," Trax said.

Even so, "maybe one out of 100 deals that you see goes through the second level of due diligence," he said, "where you peel back the onion and it makes sense. It's very, very rare."

McNabb is reaching out to people in Washington who share his hometown roots. His handlers wasted little time engaging the Obama administration. McNabb is not politically active. He concedes that he didn't even vote until the 2008 presidential election. But he's from Chicago and shares that connection with President Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others on the White House staff.

In fact, McNabb filmed a public-service announcement for the Department of Education and will visit area schools to talk with students. Josh Dubois, director of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, attended the Arlington reception, and McNabb intends to get involved with Michelle Obama's "Let's Move!" campaign.

"I think certainly anytime a marquee name migrates to a new location, in that geography it creates new opportunity, companies looking to tap into the hype before the athlete has proven himself to do what he's there to do: to win football games," said Paul Swangard, a sports marketing expert at the University of Oregon. By "moving to Washington, is he using the nation's capital as a national platform for himself?"

The upside of relocation

The relocation gave McNabb's brand an instant boost.

With his name dominating headlines and his face a constant on ESPN, it wasn't simply his playing career that was getting a fresh start. From a marketing perspective, the renewed interest in McNabb was almost immediate, Stroth said.

McNabb's jersey hadn't been among the league's top-sellers since 2006.

But over the summer since the trade, it was the league's second-best-selling jersey, trailing only Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.

Since joining the Redskins, McNabb has landed at least two major sponsorship deals. He appeared in a national television commercial for Dr Pepper. And last month, he taped commercials with Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin for a new Capital One campaign that will launch soon. Stroth anticipated such a renewed interest in McNabb.

"During the last few years in Philadelphia, at the end of every season, there was uncertainty [as to] whether or not he would remain on the Philadelphia Eagles," he said. "So from a corporate partnership perspective, there wasn't as much activity as there had been in the past."

Time will tell just how financially beneficial McNabb's move to Washington might be, but marketing experts say that nothing will help more than winning.

Marketing Evaluations measures "Q ratings" -- the familiarity and appeal of athletes and celebrities -- and the company began tracking McNabb in 2001. Henry Schafer, executive vice president, said McNabb's popularity among sports fans peaked in 2005, when he led the Eagles to the Super Bowl. Seventy percent of fans recognized him then, and McNabb had a Q score of 23 -- well above average.

In the most recent study, McNabb is recognizable by even more sports fans -- 84 percent -- but his Q score, which essentially reveals how well-liked he is, had fallen to 17. For comparison, Peyton Manning has a Q score of 42, Brett Favre 28 and Kurt Warner 29.

With McNabb changing cities and teams, Schafer drew comparisons to Warner, who saw a great revival when he led the Cardinals to the Super Bowl in 2009.

"Donovan has pretty good awareness," Schafer said. "He's just not breaking through right now in terms of consumer appeal."

And that could be a challenge going forward.

"While retired athletes such as Michael Jordan and Joe Montana can still be seen on television commercials pitching products," Swangard said, "McNabb may not have earned that staying power quite yet.

"I'm sensing he's got a real strong interest in building the business side of his post-professional career that may not have as much to do with his endorsement upside," he said. "He's not going to be out there peddling Mr. Coffee, whereas Jordan can sell Ball Park Franks and Hanes underwear for the rest of the post-professional career."

Even so, following Warner's example, Schafer said if McNabb wins in Washington, he could become even more attractive to advertisers than he was five years ago, when the quarterback seemed to be near the top of his marketing game.

Back then, McNabb was on the cover of EA Sports' Madden NFL video game. He signed the largest deal Reebok had ever given a football player. Rather than accept cash to promote Vitamin Water, McNabb became an equity partner in the company, not long before Coca-Cola bought it for $4.2 billion. And perhaps most memorable: He was the personality in the longest-run advertising campaign Campbell's Soup has ever had.

Soupy sales

Early in his career, McNabb began appearing in Campbell's commercials alongside an actress who played his mother.

"Every time the commercial ran with Donovan and his Campbell's mom, his real mom would call me to let me know she was ready for 'Hollywood,' " says Peter Raskin, McNabb's former marketing agent and the co-founder The Agency Sports Management in New York.

Raskin says that during one game, the commercial aired nearly a dozen times and each time, Wilma McNabb would catch his eye. He finally persuaded Campbell's to give her a shot, and Wilma starred alongside her son until 2008.

Wilma's minor celebrity illustrates how everyone in Team McNabb is fully invested in the quarterback's brand. Wilma is also president of the Professional Football Players Mothers Association, runs her own Web site, and is president of the McNabb's charitable foundation. Sam McNabb founded the National Football Players Father's Association and serves as its president, and he runs football camps back in Chicago. And McNabb's older brother, Sean, has his own event-planning company and helps coordinate everything from football camps to charity fundraisers.

McNabb himself wears many hats. He's president of McNabb Unlimited, which handles his business dealings; founded a charity; serves on the board of trustees at his alma mater, Syracuse University; and runs a scholarship fund and essay contest at Mt. Carmel High in Chicago.

The money from a football camp he hosts has gone to the American Diabetes Association, an annual commitment of at least $50,000 that has totaled around $1 million in the past 10 years, according to Rich Burg, McNabb's publicist. The cause is dear to McNabb: His father has Type 2 diabetes.

He said he hopes to "spread the awareness of diabetes" to get "people to get tested, to learn more about their family history, to learn more about themselves."

For McNabb, each member of his team is an extension of his brand and every endeavor they undertake an extension of his character.

"You just can't, as they say in the world, just sell out and put your face on any type of company that's not just you," he said. "You won't see that with me. I've built a brand, I've built a name for myself.

"And if I'm going to be the face of it, it has to be something that's my lifestyle, something of who I really am."

'Here for years'

McNabb says he's here to stay. He emphasized that he's bought a house in Northern Virginia. Though the family will spend much of the offseason at his Arizona home, his children will enroll in school here. He intends to be much more than simply Washington's quarterback.

"I look at myself as being here for years," he said. "So a lot of stuff that I was doing back in Philadelphia, I will be doing here now."

Those around him say he has been smart with his money, making conservative investments and staying away from record labels, restaurants and other glamour properties that often bring little or no return.

But his contract, which pays him $12 million a year, is set to expire after the 2010 season. Both McNabb and the team say they intend to negotiate an extension, but there might not be significant movement on that front until the regular season is underway. But there was little movement on that front in the weeks preceding the start of the regular season. Fletcher Smith, McNabb's agent and the final cornerstone of Team McNabb, has met with Bruce Allen, the Redskins' general manager. No announcement, however, is pending.

While the two hammer out details, the rest of Team McNabb will continue plotting the quarterback's future off the field. McNabb can't predict an end date for his career, but at 33, he knows the game won't last forever.

"He wants to become a businessman, he wants to become a broadcast personality," Stroth said. "He wants to win a Super Bowl with the Redskins, but he also understands that his sports career is just part of his life."

With options and opportunities come pitfalls, Swangard said.

"He absolutely has the chance to potentially invest in a number of things, he just has to be smart. The common theme that weaves itself through professional sports when it comes to business, the road is littered with talented athletes who made really bad business decisions," he said. "The hope is that he's going to take a smarter, more conservative approach and have something to show for it in the end."

And while McNabb will be most visible wearing a helmet and pads and trying to return the Redskins to competitive form in coming months, his other team -- Team McNabb -- will be busy behind the scenes, making sure the McNabb brand can outlast the quarterback's playing career.

"I'm truly passionate with everything that I do," McNabb said. "Not just football, but everything that I put my hand on or touch. I'm determined to make that the best. If it's with diabetes, if it's dealing with health care, education, if it's physical fitness, whatever may be. If put my hand on it, I'm going to be in it whole-heartedly."

Staff writer Thomas Heath and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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