Will Johnny Manziel ever cash in?

December, 7, 2012
12/07/12
10:47
AM ET

He might be Johnny Football, but he's not allowed to be Johnny Cash.

Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel is the favorite to become the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, but all the fame that comes with college football's most prestigious award can't be capitalized on.

It's an incredible Catch-22 for the kid who wears No. 2.

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Dave EinselEveryone wants a piece of the cash cow known as "Johnny Football," which is causing quite a stir.
They say history repeats itself, but there's never quite been a business storylike this one.

It goes something like this:

Kid comes out of nowhere from a small town in Texas to become the starting quarterback at A&M. As he wins game after game in the school's first season in the most competitive conference of them all, Aggies fans clamor for his jersey, which can't get to stores fast enough. On his way to breaking the single-season record for most offensive yards in SEC history, Manziel and his Aggies shock No. 1 Alabama in mid-November -- in Tuscaloosa. The business surrounding his number, name and likeness went from a cottage industry to a small economy.

Because of NCAA rules, it's an incredibly complicated business as to who is allowed to cash in and how they're allowed to make money off a player.

Texas A&M can make money off Manziel by selling jerseys, T-shirts and hats with No. 2 on them, but they're not allowed to use Manziel's name, likeness or Johnny Football nickname, which was bestowed on him when he arrived in College Station.

The school has done what it can. Since it wasn't known that the redshirt freshman was even going to start, absolutely no merchandise was printed before the season, and stripes Texas A&M added to the sides of its jersey this season made it harder for its shoe and apparel partner, adidas, to find blank jerseys to print on and ship out to stores. All 2,500 replica jerseys put on the racks at official campus stores have sold out; so have some 1,400 jersey T-shirts, with more of those on the way.

"Frankly, we're not doing anything that hasn't been done before," said Jason Cook, the school's vice president of marketing and communications. "The difference is he's a freshman."

But for all the money the school has made off Manziel, and it's not actually that much, because the marketplace wasn't quite ready for the quick turnaround needed once Manziel quickly became a marketing commodity. There's also a heavy responsibility. In order to make sure Manziel is eligible to play on the field for the next two seasons, the school, according to NCAA rules, must show an aggressive effort to go after those who are using his name and likeness without permission.

"At first, we started to see a little trickle of product that was showing up on eBay and on message boards," Cook said. "But after the Alabama game, it just exploded. And then when he was installed as a legitimate Heisman candidate, it exploded even more."

Footballs and helmets signed by Manziel, or at least advertised as signed by him (school officials say many of the items are fake), have sold for more than $400. One seller on eBay who claims to be selling the original "Johnny Football" shirt lists that he's sold 625 of them. There's also a hooded version and the new phrase growing in commercial popularity, "HEISMANZIEL." There are also bumper stickers, trading cards, custom figurines, iPhone cases and mugs.

Texas A&M now has two full-time employees in compliance devoted to addressing issues related to the unauthorized use of anything related to Manziel on a daily basis, according to Shane Hinckley, vice president of business development, who also runs the school's athletic licensing business. Hinckley said that its compliance office has sent out 60 cease-and-desist letters to people making Manziel product and 37 cease-and-desist letters to bootleggers making product specifically using Johnny Football as well as Texas A&M trademarks.

Texas A&M is not alone in the enforcement effort. Its licensing partner, CLC, has taken a supporting role on the legal front, as has a team of lawyers working for Manziel's family.

The family hired the firm of J. Bennett White out of Tyler, Texas, a couple months ago when it was clear they needed help. Jay Jordan, an attorney with the practice, confirmed that the family was working on trademarking the term "Johnny Football," but was first taking steps in a strategy to ensure a successful application. Jordan wouldn't specifically divulge what those details were, but one of the key aspects to establishing ownership of a trademark is proving its use in commerce. Not so coincidentally, Texas A&M recently produced "Johnny Football" T-shirts, not to sell them of course, but instead gave them away. It is believed this was done to help the family establish a legitimate connection with the trademark office.

"The focus is on preservation of the value he has instead of monetization," Jordan said.

Of course, there is already a competing application for the trademark "Johnny Football," applied for by Kenneth R. Reynolds Family Investments that is based in College Station, where the university is located. Jordan says that the company, which appears to have booster ties to the school, never asked Manziel or his family for permission to go after the trademark.

Even if the family does eventually own "Johnny Football," it's not like they can do anything with it either until his eligibility has expired.

"His family is making a huge bet on the future, because if they trademark the name, the responsibility for policing that falls upon them," Cook said. "All the legal fees, the cease-and-desist letters, everything."

Many fans have long argued that the idea that Manziel can't make any money off his success while he's playing isn't right.

NCAA president Mark Emmert doesn't think the overt marketing and cashing in by Texas A&M is unfair. He rationalizes this by projecting out his future.

"The position of the NCAA has always been that when a student is playing for their university, they are getting the full advantage of being part of that university," Emmert told ESPN.com. "They are able to build on that popularity, and when they go pro, they are extraordinarily well-positioned to monetize their brand. And why will Johnny Manziel be able to do that? Because he played at Texas A&M and was successful and perhaps won the Heisman."

Emmert says one of the reasons it's hard to pay Manziel is because it's not known how much Manziel himself helped to sell an item.

"It's not just that it's a No. 2 [jersey]," Emmert said. "It's a Texas A&M No. 2. I can't parse out the value of the number on one side and the university on the other. They go together. So A&M can enjoy the advantages of having this spectacular athlete play for them, and ticket sales and filling the stands and being on TV more, and then he's going to go out and play in the NFL and they don't get anything for that. I could also say, 'Shouldn't they have a share having groomed him for the NFL?'"

The discussion of Manziel's future provides further intrigue to story.

Emmert's reasoning becomes weakened if Manziel doesn't cash in when he is allowed to go pro after his junior season. What happens if Johnny Football peaked too early? What happens if the players around him aren't as good? His left tackle, Luke Joeckel, won the Outland Trophy (given to the nation's best interior lineman) and could leave after this season to become one of the top picks in the NFL draft.

In the past 20 years of those who have won the Heisman, only three players didn’t cash in within a month of winning the award. In 2008, University of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford came back for his senior season after winning the Heisman the year before. In 2009, University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow won the award as a sophomore and played two more seasons. But in both those cases, the players did cash in. Sam Bradford was picked by the St. Louis Rams as the No. 1 pick of the 2010 NFL draft and got $50 million guaranteed. Tebow, who was drafted the same year as Bradford as the No. 25 pick, has made more than $13 million in his NFL career and millions more in marketing deals. Matt Leinart, who has made more than $23 million in his NFL career, won the Heisman in 2004 but didn’t enter the draft until after his senior season in 2006.

Manziel, like Tebow, will have at least two years to wait without being allowed to make a dime. In the meantime, the business of guarding his eligibility is expected to get a little bit harder if he wins the Heisman on Saturday.

It's not something Manziel himself will be isolated from. The compliance office has met with Manziel to go over everything surrounding the price of success, what he can do and even what he can say to the people who want to hear from him and talk to him. Early Friday morning, he hit 100,000 Twitter followers.

Given his influence and his lack of capitalistic motivation, it's almost as if his name Johnny couldn't have been more perfect. As in Johnny Appleseed.

Darren Rovell | email

ESPN.com Sports Business reporter

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