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Is Tim Tebow the greatest sports marketing machine ever?

The virgin preacher quarterback is the official face of Jockey underwear. He's a cover boy for EA Sports video games. The first limited-edition release of his own line of Nike shoes sold out earlier this month in five minutes in the middle of the night. His new No. 15 Denver Broncos jersey is the biggest seller in the National Football League, bigger than Peyton Manning, bigger than Drew Brees, bigger than Tom Brady.

Tim Tebow is a backup. He's a backup to a backup.

Yet companies that do surveys that measure the marketability of celebrities and athletes say the former Florida Gator football folk hero is more known, more appealing and more of a trendsetter in the eyes of the public than most of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL and the stars in other sports.

The guy the Broncos call their third-string quarterback is the same guy E-Poll Market research calls the third-most influential athlete in America.

It's almost football season.

The question is worth asking.

In the history of sports marketing — the business of turning success in stadiums into the ability to pitch products outside of them — has there ever been anything like 23-year-old Timothy Richard Tebow?

• • •

Young athletes signing endorsement deals based on potential rather than proven production is not new.

Tiger Woods and LeBron James, for instance, were much richer much sooner. The difference, though, is that they were expected to be superstars of their respective sports, and they have been. Tebow isn't even a starter on his team. There's a chance he'll hardly play.

Talk about Tebow to people who work in the overlapping industries of sports and entertainment and business and a handful of words and phrases keep coming up. Authentic. Sincere. Moral. Winner. Champion. Leader. Presence. Humility. Clean-cut. All-American.

But one in particular: Unprecedented.

"It's safe to say he's got unprecedented numbers heading into a rookie season," E-Poll president Gerry Philpott said of Tebow's current Q rating. Q in this case doesn't stand for quarterback. This Q rating measures a celebrity's overall popularity and appeal.

"Entirely unprecedented," said Dan Shanoff, the Sporting News blogger who covers the Tebow phenomenon at timteblog.com. "I think it's arguable he is already the most popular — and thus the most marketable — player in the NFL."

"Tim Tebow," said Rich Thomaselli, the sports business reporter for Advertising Age, "is the greatest thing to come to the NFL since they moved the goal posts to the back of the end zone." That happened in 1974.

Tebow's agent, industry veteran Jimmy Sexton, told ESPN.com in April that he thinks the Jacksonville native and UF alum will be the most marketable athlete in sports, period, ever.

"He will be," Sexton said.

He's off to a good start. He signed the deals with EA Sports and Nike even before he was drafted 25th overall by the Broncos in April. Earlier this month, 500 pairs of his shoes went on sale at NikeStore.com at 1:50 a.m., and they were gone by 1:55. They're now for sale on eBay for up to $500 a pair. His jersey on NFLShop.com was the league's top seller on draft weekend and that hasn't changed since. Blue Tebow jerseys. Orange Tebow jerseys. White Tebow jerseys. Pink Tebow jerseys. This summer, at his first preseason practice with the Broncos, the team broke its training camp attendance record. Sports talk show hosts in Denver have noticed a new way to make their ratings spike. Say the name.

According to the Davie-Brown Index, he outranks Michael Jordan, maybe the most famous athlete in history, in categories like trustworthiness, compassion and sincerity, and it's not even close.

"People are just drawn to him," Thomaselli said.

"He's got a unique background among athletes," E-Poll's Randy Parker said. "He's perceived as having high standards and a different sort of ethical stance than many athletes."

• • •

The start of the story of Tim Tebow is well-known by now. He was born in 1987 in the Philippines to devout Christian missionary parents after his mother became ill during her pregnancy and refused to get a doctor-recommended abortion while his father prayed to God for a son named Timothy who would be a preacher. The family believes in Creationism, the inevitability of the Rapture and the unerring literal truth of the Bible.

It has long been part of the textbook of sports stars as pitch men to steer clear of socially divisive topics like politics and religion. Jordan, for instance, once famously refused to support a Democrat because, he said, "Republicans buy shoes, too."

For Tebow, though, a huge part of his persona always has been unabashedly religious. He sketched numbers of Bible verses on the strips of black he wore under his eyes in games in college and appeared in an antiabortion ad for the conservative Christian organization Focus on the Family during this year's Super Bowl.

This didn't scare away Nike.

Or Jockey.

Or EA Sports.

Or all the people who are buying all those shoes and all those jerseys.

"I guarantee you there are people out there who know nothing about football and know nothing about the Broncos and never watch football and who are buying his jersey just because of who he is," said Brent High, who heads up the nonprofit ministry called Third Coast Sports.

He lives near Nashville and has two young sons.

"We're Titans fans," he said, "but I am eager to have my children wear Tim Tebow jerseys."

"He's more than just a Denver Bronco," said Greg Stielstra, the co-author of the book Faith-Based Marketing: The Guide to Reaching 140 Million Christian Customers. "He's one of us."

"The Christian community has taken him as their own," High said. "He's their champion."

And they are hundreds of millions of people who buy billions of dollars worth of stuff. They are people who made bestsellers out of the Left Behind series and The Purpose Driven Life. They are people who made box-office megahits out of The Chronicles of Narnia and The Passion of the Christ.

Are some people not buying Tebow jerseys because they don't believe what he believes?

"It's virtually impossible to understand the number of people who won't buy products because they disagree with Tebow's value system," said Shanoff of the Tebow blog. "All we have to go on are sales numbers."

So far so good.

"He came out of that kind of environment where mom and dad are zealous for their faith," said Bill McCartney, the former University of Colorado football coach who is now the president of the Denver ministry for men called Promise Keepers.

"You reap what you sow," he said.

• • •

Tebow always has stressed that for him football isn't just football. It's a platform. He uses that word a lot.

During his junior year at UF, in the national championship against Oklahoma, Tebow had John 3:16 written on his eye black. Whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. That night it was the top search on Google.

Last fall, in a profile in GQ magazine, Jason Fagone wrote that "the theory of influence" was Tebow's "main intellectual passion."

"Obviously," Tebow told him then, "your goal as a speaker is to be larger-than-life to your audience. You know? That's your goal. So they're into you.

"Okay," he emphasized. "Listening."

He has been raised since the day he was born, since the day before he was born, to be a preacher, a missionary with a message, a changer of minds, and he was in Sports Illustrated and was called "The Chosen One" in an hourlong documentary on ESPN when he was in high school, and he won the Heisman Trophy and two national championships and was on national television nearly every week when he was in college, and he has come of age within the culture wars and the vast, rapid social networking media scape of the early 21st century.

And how many people does that paragraph describe?

One.

• • •

New question then.

If you're an athlete seen by great swaths of the American public as likable, trustworthy and sincere, but you don't play well, or you don't even play at all, do any of those things matter? Does any of that still make you marketable?

"He's got to play," said Thomaselli of Advertising Age.

But what if he doesn't?

"When Jockey signed Tim," company spokesman Mo Moorman said, "we were well aware that he's a rookie NFL quarterback likely playing a supporting role for the season. But we feel strongly that Tim's going to find the same sort of success in the pros as he did in college."

But what if he doesn't?

"First and foremost, he's an amazing athlete," Nike spokesman Derek Kent said. "For Nike, that's the most important thing."

The subtext?

"He's got to deliver," said Bob Hutchins, the other co-author of Faith-Based Marketing.

Influence requires a platform. A platform requires prominence. Prominence requires playing. So how many years of little or no playing would it take to erode this platform Tim Tebow has so consciously constructed?

His contract for the Broncos is for five years. The experts say he doesn't have that much time.

Three years? No.

"Maybe two years," said Darin David of the Marketing Arm, which evaluates the appeal of endorsers.

Or not even that, said E-Poll's Philpott.

"He's got a year."

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8751.

Is Tim Tebow the greatest sports marketing machine ever? 08/13/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 12:27pm]

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