Our Matchup Monday is back. This week, the opendorse team analyzed the marketing production of this week’s Monday Night Football marketing stars – J.J. Watt and Andy Dalton.

Started From The Bottom, Now He’s Here

JJ Watt

When you think of a 2-star athlete, according to Rivals.com, who went on to play tight-end at Central Michigan, the name J.J. Watt doesn’t typically come to mind. The player we now consider a freak of nature had a humble and unheralded beginning. Following an impressive career at Pewaukee High School in Wisconsin, J.J. Watt slipped under the radar. After receiving very little hype out of high school, J.J. committed to Central Michigan. During his recruitment, Watt was led to believe that he would be the featured tight-end and would have plenty of opportunities to celebrate in the end zone. That proved to not be the case. With his freshman season nearing its end and only eight receptions to his name, Watt decided to give up his scholarship and walk-on at the University of Wisconsin. Yes, the man we now know as J.J. Watt was a walk-on.

Watt was forced to redshirt during the 2008 season, but that didn’t stop him from dominating on the field. After earning Scout Team Player of the Year honors, Watt solidified himself as a dominant force on the Wisconsin defense for the next two seasons. Following his junior campaign, in which he was named an All-American and First-Team All-Big Ten, J.J. decided to forgo his senior season and declare for the NFL Draft. At the NFL combine, Watt’s athleticism took center stage and placed him as the top performer in nearly every category for defensive linemen. The Houston Texans were so impressed that they selected him with the 11th pick in the draft. It would only take the former All-American one season before he put together one of the best seasons in NFL history. Racking up 69 tackles, 20.5 sacks and forcing four fumbles, J.J. ended his 2012 season as a near unanimous selection for Defensive Player of the Year. By getting to the quarterback an impressive 20.5 times, a number Watt would duplicate two years later, Watt fell only 2.5 sacks short of the NFL record.

The Red Rifle Strikes Again

Andy Dalton

Before Andy Dalton, TCU was just a school who happened to play football in the Mountain West Conference. The school put together some successful seasons in the MWC, but was rarely recognized on the national level. After winning the starting job as a freshman in 2008, Dalton led the Horned Frogs to an impressive 36-3 record in his final three seasons and right in the middle of the national discussion. Dalton’s best season was also his last in 2010. After running the table in the MWC, the undefeated Horned Frogs accepted a birth in the Rose Bowl and went on to defeat the 11-1, J.J. Watt led, Wisconsin Badgers. TCU capped its season with a perfect 13-0 record but was beat out by Cam Newton’s, Auburn Tigers for the no. 1 ranking and National Championship.

Many scouts were skeptical that Dalton’s success in college had more to do with the system than his overall skill set. Due to the hesitation, teams passed on the signal caller in the first round. Eventually, the Cincinnati Bengals would select Dalton with their second round pick. Dalton went on to win the starting position before his first game. Although he had the lowest completion percentage of his career, Dalton led the Bengals to a postseason appearance, but was eliminated in the first round. Unable to get over the hump in the postseason has become a theme for the Dalton-led Bengals, who have lost in the Wild Card round in each of Dalton’s four seasons. 2015 has been a different story for the “Red Rifle” and his Bengals team. Entering this week’s matchup with the Texans, the Bengals boast a perfect record and Andy Dalton is on pace to shatter all of his personal bests in the NFL.

The Breakdown

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A Big Year Off The Field

J.J. Watt is everywhere. In only his fifth NFL season, Watt has risen to no. 5 in the NFL in terms of endorsement earnings and is the list’s youngest by five years. As the lone defensive player in the top ten, Watt brings something to the table that no one else on his side of the ball has been able to. Boasting a robust portfolio of over 14 brands, J.J. Watt is leaving his defensive counterparts in the dust. Dominance on the field has helped, but it has become apparent that J.J. Watt has found the formula for marketing success.

As we pointed out in a recent blog explaining how to select the right athlete influencer, authenticity is one of the most important aspects to consider when pairing an influencer with a brand. Authenticity jumps off the page when you consider J.J. Watt teaming up with Papa John’s earlier this year. During his time in college, Watt would go door-to-door delivering pizza for a local pizza chain in Wisconsin. Watt has gone from a pizza delivery boy earning minimum wage, to the face of one of the largest pizza chains in the country. His partnership with Papa John’s is eerily similar to his NFL journey where J.J. was a mere walk-on at Wisconsin and became one for the biggest names in football.

Earlier this year, Watt participated in Gatorade’s “Sweat It To Get It” campaign. This time, instead of sacking quarterbacks, he was teaming up with them. The campaign featured Watt alongside Panther QB, Cam Newton, as well as the NFL’s marketing kings, Peyton and Eli Manning. Being included with the Manning brothers, who are two of the highest endorsers in the NFL, has to feel good for the Texans defensive end.

In January, Watt and Kevin Durant were signed as brand ambassadors for American Family Insurance. Fast forward nine months and AFI released their first ad involving the two superstars. With the tagline “every dream needs a champion,” Watt and Durant took to the streets to surprise their fans and encourage them to reach their dreams. The heartwarming commercial had as much as an impact on the two athletes as it did on the fans they supported. On the commercials, Watt added:

“We finally get a chance to go out there and support other people’s dreams. And when the tables are turned, it’s pretty cool to be someone else’s fan.”

We will cap of Watt’s stellar year with his signing with Reebok. Most endorsements deals are released through press releases, but Reebok and Watt decided to go a different direction. In April, Watt took to social media to announce the partnership via video during one of his workouts:

What a perfect way to kick off the “More Than Human” campaign. Not only does Watt want to help Reebok sell gear, he also wants to inspire his young fans.

“Kids treat athletes like superheroes and make you a role model,” Watt told ESPN.com. “It’s extremely important to me to remind kids that I was in their shoes and I was just like them and I accomplished what I did because I worked hard to pursue to my dreams.”

Watt has proven that his superhuman skills can dominate on the field and he is also capable of relating to his fans off of it. When an athlete can merge those two together, the result is a marketer’s dream. At 26 years old, Watt has many years ahead of him and has already proven that he can compete with the top quarterbacks in the business world. As the brightest young star in the NFL, Watt could very well supplant the star quarterbacks to become the NFL’s top-earning endorser.

The Future Is Bright

When you think of the most marketable players in the NFL, Andy Dalton does not initially come to mind. However, with the current success of his undefeated Cincinnati Bengals, that may be changing soon. Nike is currently his lone public endorsement, but the “Red Rifle” has worked with other brands in the past. Pepsi has worked with Dalton for numerous ad spots, including one where Dalton tries to sell his  “Smell Like A Tiger” flagrance to fans. The fan reaction is very Anchorman-esque. Buffalo Wild Wings also partnered with Pepsi and Dalton to bring a typical press conference off the screen and into one of their franchise stores.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ee6Kq5E4Yts

Dalton may not garner much exposure while playing in Cincinnati, but he did receive a boost when his team was featured on HBO’s popular “Hard Knocks” TV show two years ago. The show allowed viewers into the life of the Bengals quarterback and gave fans a chance to get to know him on and off the field.

Currently undefeated and preparing for a deep run in the playoffs, Andy Dalton could very well see a dramatic increase in off-field earnings during this off-season. With more exposure ahead, Dalton could just be a Bengal waiting to pounce on upcoming endorsement opportunities.