Friday, December 15, 2017

The bottom line on Winston: It's all about money

TAMPA — When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted quarterback Jameis Winston, the franchise did more than bet its future on his skills, talent and work ethic.

The team also inherited Winston's 2½ years of awful judgment and bad publicity.

The decision to choose a player with Winston's past will affect fan support, ticket and merchandise sales, corporate sponsorships and TV ratings.

The rewards of drafting Winston could be great. The risks could be even greater.

"Any mistake that he makes is going to be magnified," University of South Florida sports marketing professor Bill Sutton said. "But if he's productive and successful, he has the chance to erase some of his mistakes, and the franchise's mistakes."

• • •

In the NFL, nothing succeeds like success.

"If a player succeeds, the team succeeds," said Sutton, director of USF's Sport and Entertainment Management program.

"That means the team sells more tickets. TV ratings go up. Sponsors are more interested. People who are casual attendees start buying season tickets. People who buy regular tickets buy premium tickets.''

That's the long-term formula for success in the NFL. But in the short term, the Bucs must be very careful in how they utilize the 21-year-old player, a Heisman Trophy winner who led the Florida State University Seminoles to a national championship in 2014.

In the past, the arrival of a heralded rookie — especially a quarterback taken with the top pick in the draft — was cause for celebration. It gave a struggling team the opportunity to revitalize its brand and stoke the lagging interest of fans and corporate sponsors.

But public relations executive Jason Maloni, who has advised NFL players, said the Bucs should not make a polarizing player like Winston their marketing centerpiece just yet.

"A wise move would be not to use him as the face of the franchise to sell tickets and attract more advertisers," Maloni said. "It seems to be heaping too much on a young man's shoulders."

• • •

Merchandising is a different animal.

Some fans will clamor to buy Winston's official replica No. 3 jersey from Nike for $100. But NFL teams share the billions the league makes from merchandising revenue (except for the Dallas Cowboys, who keep all the profits). One player or one team won't move the needle.

It is Winston who has more at stake here than the team, especially when it comes to sponsorships.

NFL players usually start out signing deals with local businesses like car dealerships and, as they grow more popular, work their way up to bigger deals.

These days, companies are wary of employing NFL stars because of how quickly they can turn radioactive, like Ray Rice (domestic violence) and Aaron Hernandez (murder).

"You have to earn a sponsor's trust in 2015," Sutton said. "Winston might not be able to do that. But a Marcus Mariota, they might sign him right away."

Mariota was the quarterback taken with the second pick in the draft by the Tennessee Titans, after Winston.

"He's already been labeled an All-American kid," Sutton said.

• • •

Corporations may also be wary of Winston. He is still dealing with the legal fallout from the unproved allegation of sexual assault made against him in 2012. Winston has said that they had consensual relations and that he is innocent. He was investigated by prosecutors and Florida State University and never charged.

But his accuser, Erica Kinsman, filed a civil suit against him in state court and is suing FSU in federal court. Her attorney has vowed to move the civil trial to a courtroom in Tampa, Winston's new home. The bad publicity from those cases will not stop any time soon.

"I would say you're going to have some unpleasant times to go through with this," ESPN legal analyst Roger Cossack said. "That's part of the deal."

Winston's image also suffers from incidents such as taking part in a destructive BB gun battle and shoplifting $32 worth of crab legs and crawfish.

Bucs general manager Jason Licht said those days are behind Winston. "He's matured. He's growing up,'' Licht said on The Rich Eisen Show. "He's going to have to become a man just like all our draft picks … only time will tell.''

• • •

So what will fans make of all this?

Many have already decided whether they love or hate Winston, University of Southern California sports marketing professor David Carter said.

Casual fans are also at risk.

"There's tremendous … risk on the line for the team," he said. "Everyone is really hypersensitive to player behavior."

The Bucs must also be concerned about how female fans perceive Winston. In 2013, the NFL averaged 17.4 million viewers per regular-season game, and 35 percent of them — 6.1 million viewers — were women. That's a target audience, and an important new source of revenue, which the league wants to grow.

The NFL was widely criticized last year for the number of players accused of assaulting women and the way the league disciplined them.

Seeing a player with Winston's baggage drafted with the top pick doesn't help that perception, Valencia College sociology professor Adrienne Trier-Bieniek said.

"To me, character counts," she said.

There is an effective, albeit cynical, damage-control strategy that Winston and the Bucs could attempt as soon as the season starts: win games.

"Unlike a politician or an actor," Maloni said, "every single week (an athlete) has a chance to redeem his reputation."

Long term, time and hard work can also change how fans and the community view Winston, Tampa public relations strategist Beth Leytham said.

"Reframing is what I call it," she said, "and the way you do that is, you earn it, and you earn it by winning, staying inside the law, staying inside societal norms."

Moments after the Bucs called his name Thursday night, Winston said he knew what he must do:

"Actions speak so much louder than words, what they've read or what they may have heard. It's about your actions. Whatever is in the past is in the past. I look forward to gaining everyone's trust."

But some reputations can never be truly restored. Look at Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who has won two Super Bowls.

In 2010, he was accused of sexual assault but, like Winston, never charged. Yet Roethlisberger still lost sponsorship deals and was suspended for six games.

"He's still one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL," Sutton said. "He's married and he's got a kid and he's rehabilitating his image.

"But a lot of sponsors haven't jumped on the bandwagon yet."

• • •

The Bucs knew all this when they rolled the dice on Winston. So how do they handle their new quarterback?

Stagecraft, Maloni said, will be key.

"The most important thing is not necessarily what a player says or does, but what they're seen doing," he said. "The best way to change the narrative is for Winston to devote himself 110 percent, to develop his craft and be seen as a student of the game.

"I'd release photos of him in class, taking notes, talking with coaches or people who have had success in the NFL."

Winston is already doing that. Last month, he attended charity events put on by popular former Bucs Derrick Brooks and Mike Alstott.

"It's not unlike making certain that Michael Vick has access to a Tony Dungy," said Maloni, citing the beloved former Buccaneers coach who counseled Vick after his 2009 release from prison for dogfighting. Maloni's firm advised Vick at the time.

The Bucs must also do their part to rehabilitate Winston's image, Leytham said, and set boundaries.

"You want to be standing right next to him," she said. "You roll him right up there and have him say he's moved on and grown up. He's not about crab legs and BB guns anymore."

Yet, moments after the Bucs called his name Thursday night, Winston donned his new jersey and posted a photo of himself — with a plate of crab legs.

By Friday morning, Winston had deleted the photo from his Instagram account.

• • •

That's why stagecraft can only do so much. The most important thing Winston can do is stay out of trouble.

His credibility may not survive new accusations of misbehavior or wrongdoing, said University of Southern California professor Ira Kalb, who studies crisis management.

New trouble also would cast doubt on how honest Winston has been about his past, especially about what happened in 2012.

"The long-term solution is, he has to be very careful who he hangs out with and what he does once he becomes an NFL guy," Kalb said. "There's a lot of money at stake."

Times staff writers Rick Stroud and Greg Auman and researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Jamal Thalji at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.

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