Wednesday, March 13th, 2019

What a catch!

Simon Clancy

Lead Feature Writer

What a catch!

Simon Clancy NFL

That might be what Browns fans are thinking after one of the biggest moves of the 2019 off-season, but was also what made Odell Beckham Jr’s legend. Now a one-man conglomerate with as many sponsorship deals as touchdown receptions, Gridiron spoke exclusively to the one of the world’s most recognisable men for issue XXIV of the magazine.

The press release was simple and to the point.

“Our 30-second spot, scheduled to air during Super Bowl 50, features Buick’s all-new Cascada luxury convertible and stars New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and actress/model Emily Ratajkowski.

“We wanted a talent that represented the attributes of the Buick brand and design philosophy. For us, Odell Beckham Jr. represents unique talent and commitment to excellence that mirrors Buick’s commitment to performance.”

The ad space alone cost Buick $4.5million, but the company that offloaded almost 1.5million vehicles in 2015 yet still found itself out of the top 10 in terms of sales in the US sought its resurrection in one man: a well-spoken, fun-loving, acrobatic, photogenic, football savant brought up in a gable-ended house in Decatur, six miles north of Atlanta. Why? Because OBJ is a Madison Avenue dream. In the words of Don Draper, he’s changing the conversation around athlete marketability.

OK, so Draper didn’t actually say that. But he surely would have done were Mad Men set in 2016 because for global sporting and celebrity appeal, there’s a new Beckham in town. While he doesn’t yet possess the reach of his namesake, there’s no doubt in the mind of some that the 24-year-old can get there.

“He absolutely has the chance to grab a foothold in the worldwide sports market in terms of appeal,” Todd McFall, professor of Sports Economics at Wake Forest University tells Gridiron. “It’s not going to be easy but, if anyone can come from the NFL pack, then it would come down to him or Cam Newton and this is really an era of wide receivers. Beckham has a lot in his favour – he’s young, smart, good looking, hugely charismatic and has a certain panache. Especially when you consider that, most of the time, his appeal is actually hidden behind a facemask and his football ‘armour’.”

There was a moment during this past summer when Beckham, as part of an NFL initiative to spread the reach of the game that has made him an icon, jumped atop an SUV in a busy street. Surrounding him were a thousand camera phones and thousands more people, all of whom had come to see him. Yet more hung out of windows overlooking the throng as a chant of ‘OBJ, OBJ’ rang out. Beckham took out his own phone and filmed himself and the masses worshipping at his feet, stopping to shake his head at the insanity of it all as hundreds more came from side-streets, all singing his name. There was a religious symbolism to the scene, the devout in his thrall. But this didn’t happen in a regular place of worship, or in Times Square, or even in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where he made his name under the burning lights of the SEC.

This was Munich, Germany.

To the uninitiated, his popularity could seem a fad, based as it is on that catch against the Dallas Cowboys. And given that we see scenes of magnificence week in and week out in the NFL, what is it about Beckham that sets him apart and has seen him more to the forefront of the minds of marketeers? ESPN New York’s Jordan Raanan, who deals with the receiver on an almost daily basis, says: “Listen, in that one play he caught worldwide attention that will never leave him. He’s become the Giants’ most popular player since Lawrence Taylor and he’s actually had a cultural impact – for better or for worse – as kids try to emulate his one-handed catches or his hair. That counts for a lot.”

“To me, that’s awesome,” Beckham tells Gridiron. “You know I get tagged in those videos all the time and I watch a lot of them. I love seeing people trying to do the catch. You know a lot of parents tell me, ‘My son always tries to do the catch’ and stuff like that and to me it’s awesome.”

Beckham is a cultural icon, sports star and marketeers dream, but is he caught in the perfect storm? “New York’s the largest media market in America and Beckham is the most popular, marketable NY star regardless of sport,” says Raanan. “Because of that, it’s no surprise he’s popular with the advertisers. He looks good, he plays good… he has IT.”

And don’t the men and women of Madison Avenue know it. Beckham sells. Since that catch he’s appeared in hundreds of television spots, in the CBS medical drama Code Black, was the cover star of the Madden video game, sat next to Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour at New York and London fashion weeks, befriended Michael Jordan and LeBron James, hung out with David Beckham, played ‘soccer’ with various European powerhouses and posed nude for ESPN The Magazine.

This past summer he lived with Drake and, if the US tabloids are anything to go by, has variously been dating Amber Rose, Demi Lovato, Zendaya, Stephanie Acevedo and Khloe Kardashian. He has advertising deals with Nike, Steiner Sports, Lenovo, Dunkin’ Donuts, ROAR sports drinks, Foot Locker, Exos, Fathead and is the pitch man for Head and Shoulders shampoo. If that’s not enough, this autumn he launched his own brand of t-shirts called 13XTwenty, and his face adorns the Sprayground backpack range along with former LSU teammates Jeremy Hill and Jarvis Landry.

In terms of his standing in the NFL, Beckham’s number 13 jersey is the third-biggest seller in the NFL. And in terms of the American sporting landscape as an attraction for advertisers, he may have elevated himself towards the levels of the NBA’s marketing maven, Steph Curry. So why is the Golden State star so popular and what similarities are there between the pair? “Being genuine is one quality marketers covet more than ever,’ says Emilio Collins, the NBA’s vice president of global marketing deals. “The younger population sniffs out the fake and immediately dismisses them. It’s why Curry and, to an extent, Beckham have so many deals.”

While Curry’s star continues to shine, are there dark clouds ahead for OBJ? After all, with that saturation comes the inevitable irritation. Beckham, to some football fans, is a hated man. And overexposure will do that. “I think Odell Beckham is a stud and he’s getting a lot of commercials, but I think he’s starting to get to the point where he’s becoming too famous instead of worrying how to become a great football player,” NBA legend Charles Barkley recently told NFL Total Access.

So is there truth to what Barkley says? Should Beckham, following back-to-back outstanding seasons, let his play do the talking rather than his commercials? It seems change may come from within. “You know I’ve made myself a target,” he tells Gridiron. “I hate that that causes so much distraction for my team and for myself, especially when a lot of the stuff is not true, and there’s just all kinds of things that they come up with. It’s what comes with the territory, though, so … (laughs) I just have to get used to it.”

But will he? His stance to publicity has hardened recently and it’s more difficult to promote products if you’re unwilling to play the mad men’s game. The naivety of those early forays means his life is lived very much inside the looking glass. His social-media interactions have lessened despite the growth of his Instagram account. “I can post a picture of my dog and there will be people getting into fights in the comments section,” he told The MMQB.

But the more he retreats into himself, the more the advertisers want a piece of the action. Being Odell Beckham might be a terrific TV show but it can also be a heavy burden to carry. “There are times I respect and admire what Marshawn Lynch did,” he says. “I feel like if I hid under a rock for 364 days and only came out on the 365th and someone saw me, then it would still be a story.”

And Charles Barkley agrees, pointing to Brand Beckham as the issue: “I think he needs to be careful. Just lay low and just, kick butt on the field. I mean, nobody cares about all that extracurricular stuff.”

If Beckham’s change in mentality and growing ennui towards the spotlight continues to affect him but not the companies who crave his name, what about his on-field antics? How much can one company take before they look to step away? His incredible display of bully-boy tactics and bush-league behaviour against Carolina last year would have had most CEOs drowning their sorrows as their marketing goldmine did just about all he could to destroy his image in a meltdown as dramatic as anything Gridiron has seen in a generation.

“It was just a slobber-knocker, drag-down type of game,” arch-nemesis Josh Norman tells Gridiron. “I don’t know what else to say – you saw what happened on the television. I pulled that mask off. I pulled back the face of what that dude really is. Everybody saw that on national TV. There’s nothing that I can show that he hasn’t already exposed.”

But Beckham vehemently disputes that. “Working like a dog each off-season, it’s just all I’ve known all my life,” he tells Gridiron. “I feel like that’s what’s gotten me here so it’s hard to shy away from it. I think the work ethic is something that I’ll continue to have. I’ve come in and impacted and made plays early in my career and now I do have that target on my back and it’s ok, it is what it is.”

And for all of that ugliness against the Panthers, at least for now it’s had no effect on his marketability: “There’s been no change in our plans with Odell and Head and Shoulders,” said a Proctor and Gamble spokesman after the incident with Norman, and Beckham’s other major companies fell quickly in line. But as we’ve seen with Lance Armstrong, Maria Sharapova and most recently Ryan Lochte, it doesn’t take much to send sponsors running for cover. Especially – according to McFall – for black athletes.

“It’s a very disappointing aspect of the United States as a whole that black stars are held to a different standard,” he says, “They’re forced to operate on a different level to you and I because of the colour of their skin. Look at the reaction to Colin Kaepernick and his stance against the way black people are treated here. Would that be the same for a white quarterback?”

“I mean, when Odell had that game against the Panthers, he really opened himself up to criticism and it wouldn’t have been a surprise if some companies moved on from him. Would a white receiver have been treated the same? I sense that it was an exception but don’t be fooled: if it happened again then I think he’d begin to be written off in the eyes of some. It’s the old adage – fool me once… I think, in the US, that we forgive but never forget. For better or for worse, that’s what happens and companies will move on.”

If the deals dried up tomorrow because companies were concerned with his attitude over and above his obviously marketable character and persona, would it really matter to Beckham? How much money can someone have before they say enough is enough? And does he really want to conquer the world?

“It’s a very difficult balancing act to manage your life away from the game and the job that allows you all these endorsements,” adds McFall. “He has so many commercial opportunities and such appeal, but he still has to perform and that’s critical. Can you continue to be that good with all these things going on peripherally? That’s the challenge he faces. It’s tough to handle and I think he’s going through a little bit of that at the moment.”

Beckham brings something very different to the marketing party and he and Steph Curry’s position as the two most marketable sports stars in the United States marks a further shift towards young, viable black talent at the forefront of a tactical change among companies vying for new areas to build business. And all this from a catch that Beckham himself finds boring and generally refuses to talk about.

“Just one of those things,” he told yet another enquiring mind in Germany. “I’ve seen so many that it became kind of routine for me to expect that out of him now,” his father Odell Sr. tells Gridiron. And former teammate Landry, who saw the grab in an airport departure lounge after a Dolphins game, was similarly blasé when he spoke to us: “I wanted to scream (because it was Odell). But I’ve seen him make that catch so many times. It was nothing new to me.”

So if the impossible has become routine on the field, how does that translate to the sales pitch and the bottom line for those seeking product endorsements for a 23-year-old pass-catching freak who has the marketing world at his feet?

“He has to realise that he’s never going to be Ali or even Bill Russell,” concludes McFall. “But plenty of athletes have found their niche on a worldwide platform that lacked the panache and charisma of Beckham. Michael Jordan had the whole package, and so did Magic Johnson before the news of his illness. LeBron James has it and, with that, comes responsibility. It’s there for the taking for Beckham if he has the right people around him. Look at that video in Germany. It’s like he has the appeal of a Shaquille O’Neal. Crazy.”

It’s Odell Beckham Jr’s world and we’re just living in it.

This article originally appeared in Issue XXIV of Gridiron magazine – for individual editions or subscriptions, click HERE

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