Will Michael Vick’s Notoriety Add to His Public Allure?

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

After Nike endorsed–no, wait, didn’t endorse–Michael Vick again this year, I can’t help but wonder whether Vick has even more star power than he did before spending 23 months in prison for his participation in a dogfighting ring.

John Kelly of Minyanville has the following to say about Vick and notoriety:

The questions on everyone’s minds are: Can Michael Vick return at the same level of play after spending 18 months in jail? Will the fans forgive him for his cruelty to dogs and allow him to refurbish his tarnished image? Gareb Shamus, CEO of New York-based Wizard Entertainment, which covers the gaming industry, says the answer is yes. “If anything, it’s his notoriety, more than his athletic ability, that will contribute to a spike in his popularity,” he says. “This is a period in our history where infamy makes you famous. And desirable.”

At the time of his conviction, Vick was the highest paid player in football, with a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons that put him at number 33 on Forbes’ “Top 100 Celebrities” list. But following his 2007 guilty plea in the dog-fighting case, NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodall suspended Vick without pay. Nike (NKE) also dropped a lucrative sponsorship contract with him and the NFL stopped selling his jersey and other merchandise. These events took a huge hit on Vick’s finances, and while serving his time, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Fast-forward to the present: In August, Vick signed a one-year deal with the Eagles for $1.6 million, with a team option to extend the contract for another year at $5.2 million. The signing has drawn the ire of many, but it’s too soon to tell if his reputation has taken a permanent hit. At the team’s first home game last Sunday, just 50 people showed up to protest his presence on the team. Several online campaigns have sprung up to urge people to boycott the Eagles’ corporate sponsors, which include Canon (CAJ), Budweiser, Gatorade (PEP), MasterCard (MA), Staples (SPLS), and US Airways (LCC). But whether these campaigns succeed in influencing the companies to withdraw their sponsorship of the Eagles remains to be seen.

On the other hand, there’s some positive news for Vick. A day after signing his contract with the Eagles, the video-game company EA Sports added Vick to this years edition of Madden NFL, its bestselling multi-platform video game. Even more telling, Vick’s number-seven Eagles jersey is the fourth-best selling jersey on NFLShop.com. The stats are based on sales at the site from April 1 to August 28; Vick signed with the Eagles on August 13, which means that his jersey broke the top five in sales in less than two weeks. And while Dick’s Sporting Goods, whose headquarters are in Pennsylvania, is refusing to stock the jersey, the sporting goods chain Modell’s reports that demand for the jersey is high.

There are two ways to interpret Vick’s story:

a) Vick should be permanently shunned for his involvement in dogfighting. Contributing to the deaths of animals is inexcusable.

b) Vick messed up. He declared bankruptcy and did time in prison. Now, he’s getting a second chance. Who doesn’t deserve a second chance?

Through his actions, Vick has become symbolic for his audience. He gives them a chance to express agreement, disagreement, disgust, and a range of other emotions. In that sense, Michael Vick is more than a football player–he is a trigger for value expression.

Because of that, Vick continues to draw a lot of attention. Companies like Nike and jersey sellers can capitalize on that attention, either by selling product or by making their own statement, as Nike just did. Maybe his moral value went down after the dogfighting incident, but his marketing value has gone up.

What do you think of the Vick incident? Is it affecting your perception of his sponsors or the Philadelphia Eagles?