25 years ago, Randall Cunningham was the biggest thing in the NFL
by RAY DIDINGER, Daily News Sports Writer, Posted: August 31, 2014
(This article first appeard on August 8, 1989.)
Randall Cunningham is hot. Very hot.
Not just football hot, but marketing hot. Media hot. Superstar hot.
It is hard to say just when it happened, but at some point in the last year the Eagles' dashing, young quarterback crossed over the line between football player and folk hero.
Now Cunningham is doing what all good folk heroes do in the '80s: He is cashing in.
He is doing commercials. He is selling his face on posters and T-shirts. He is hosting TV and radio shows. He is doubling his fee for a personal appearance (up to $5,000 for an hour, according to agent Jim Steiner), and he is just scratching the surface.
"Randall's potential in this (marketing) area is enormous," Steiner said recently. "He is 26 and already he is one of the most visible and exciting players in the league. "
"I think Randall will be pro football's answer to Michael Jordan," said Richard Glazer, a local sports agent who negotiated Cunningham 's new radio package with WIP.
OK, so that last statement might be a reach - Air Jordan, after all, will earn a staggering $7 million in endorsements this year - but the fact remains that Randall is coming on strong.
Steiner predicts Cunningham will double his outside income this year, with the total amount running "well into six figures. "
Combined with the $1.35 million the quarterback will earn from the Eagles this season, that puts Cunningham in the $2 million neighborhood. Not bad for a guy who was making $190,000 as a starter just two years ago.
Next month, Cunningham will appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated 's pro football issue, an annual showcase for the NFL's leading men.
In the past, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach and Dan Marino, among others, have graced the SI kickoff cover. This year, it is Rambling Randall.
Welcome to prime time, kid.
Cunningham hasn't yet cracked the national advertising market - he hasn't landed a megabucks TV commercial, a la Bo Jackson or Orel Hershiser - but he is getting the kind of big-time exposure that makes those Wheaties deals happen.
It has been a while since an Eagle created this kind of stir. Ron Jaworski and Bill Bergey were fine players, but they were blue-collar types. They didn't dazzle the masses the way Cunningham does. He has what's called "star quality. "
Randall is single, he is cool and he plays quarterback with reckless bravado. There is no one in the NFL quite like him. He runs, he passes and he has his own stretch limousine, a white 1988 Lincoln, which he uses for personal appearances.
Go ahead, just try to ignore Randall Cunningham .
He dares you.
Who's that sitting ringside at the Mike Tyson-Carl Williams fight, mingling with all the beautiful people? Why, it's Randall.
Who's that schmoozing with Bill Cosby in Hollywood? Gee, it's Randall.
Who's that shaking hands with Jesse Jackson? Can it be? Yup, it's Randall.
What's next? "The Arsenio Hall Show," with guest host Randall Cunningham ?
Cunningham is a big fan of Hall, the comedian and talk-show host. He is such a fan, in fact, that he wants to use the Arsenio format on his own weekly TV show, which will air on Channel 3 at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays beginning next month.
In other words, this will not be your typical football show, with the quarterback diagramming plays on a blackboard and saying things such as, ''Now, folks, this here is the nickel
back . . . "
Cunningham wants his show to reflect his freewheeling style. Sure, there will be football talk, but there also will be music segments, fashion shows and celebrity chitchat, all done in front of a live audience. Randall says he might even come on stage dancing some nights.
"I want people to see there is more to me than football," Cunningham said.
Sherry Lewis, another member of Cunningham 's management team, negotiated the TV deal. It includes a reserved parking space at the station so that Randall can breeze in and breeze out, Bob Hope-style. We're talking the full star treatment here.
Lewis, a former marketing director for the Eagles, hopes the show will open those major advertising doors for Cunningham . Lewis
plans to send the tapes to the top national ad firms so they can see how Randall comes across on TV.
"He's going to be dynamite," Lewis predicted. "He's so natural. I see commercials now and think, 'Randall would be great in that. ' "
Lewis already has an idea for a fast-food commercial: Randall is being pursued by a posse of tacklers when he gets a craving for a burger. He zips through the take-out window of (fill in the blank), grabs his lunch and, poof, he is gone without breaking stride.
"Randall on the run," Lewis said. "What could be more perfect?"
It is not easy to crack the TV ad lineup. The Michael Jordans and Bo Jacksons are the exceptions.
Really, think about how many current athletes you see doing national commercials. It's not that many when you consider how many thousands are banging on the door.
Example: Only three of the 28 first-round NFL draft picks in 1987 earned as much as $75,000 from endorsements in their rookie year. The three were No. 1 pick Vinny Testaverde (Tampa Bay), linebacker Brian Bosworth (Seattle) and receiver Ricky Nattiel (Denver). Nineteen of the picks made less than $10,000.
Also: Washington quarterback Doug Williams got almost nothing after his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII. He landed a few print endorsements in the D.C. area, but nothing that amounted to much.
What the national advertisers are looking for is someone who is marketable in all 50 states. It is a select group: Jordan, John Madden, Julius Erving, Arnold Palmer, Magic Johnson, major celebrity types such as that.
Cunningham isn't there yet, but he isn't that far away, either. His performance in last year's 24-13 win over the New York Giants on Monday night TV captured the imagination of viewers from Manhattan to Manhattan Beach, Calif.
That night, Cunningham made a play for the ages. You know the one: He rolled out, bounced off linebacker Carl Banks, straight-armed the turf with his left hand, regained his balance and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Jimmie Giles.
"After that play," Glazer said, "America knew who Randall Cunningham was. "
But that didn't mean America was ready to buy a lawn mower from him. Or a color TV. Or a microwave oven. It takes time to gain the public's confidence. One play, no matter how astounding, still is just one play.
"You need two things to be a national spokesman: longevity and personality," said Bob Woolf, the Boston sports attorney whose clients include NFL quarterbacks Joe Montana, Doug Flutie, Testaverde and ex-Redskin Joe Theismann.
"Joe Montana is a hot property because he has a track record; he's won three Super Bowls. Cunningham is an exciting prospect, but he hasn't really proven himself yet. He's had the one good year.
"The big (advertiser) would rather go with a sure thing, like Montana. "
"I've seen Cunningham , I think he is a comer," said David Falk, of ProServ, a Washington-based marketing firm that represents a dozen athletes, including Jordan and Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason.
"( Cunningham ) is talented and he speaks comfortably. But we've found that team sports tend to be regional. Most football and basketball players sell in their hometown and that's it. Individual sports (tennis, golf) don't have that regional identification and those athletes do better.
"We finally got Boomer national contracts with Hanes (underwear) and Coke this year. The fact that he took Cincinnati to the Super Bowl helped, but we laid the groundwork the previous two years by having him do local commercials for a car dealer and the Arthritis Foundation.
"It's a gradual process," Falk said. "If I were to give Cunningham 's agent any advice, it would be to pick a few quality companies and grow with them. Be selective and be patient. "
That's precisely the approach Steiner is taking. So far Cunningham has done one TV commercial: a Diet Coke spot that airs next month. It is an ensemble piece with the quarterback and other celebrities appearing in brief glimpses.
Cunningham also has done print ads for Herr's potato chips and Pro-Set football cards. He has a one-year deal with Nike that includes a poster.
Steiner is picking his spots, taking his time.
This is in direct contrast to the approach Steiner took in 1985 while marketing another NFL client, Chicago Bears rookie William "The Refrigerator" Perry.
Steiner went for the fast buck with the 6-2, 325-pound defensive tackle. He landed six national accounts - including Kraft Foods, Levi's and McDonald's - and earned The Fridge a cool $3 million in his rookie year.
Perry novelties (refrigerator magnets, a Hasbro doll, etc.) pulled in another $1.5 million. According to NFL Properties, The Fridge outsold 18 of the 28 teams that year. For six months, he was the hottest - and widest - athlete-billboard in history.
But the craze died the next year as Perry ballooned to 350 pounds and his role on the team diminished. Advertisers stopped calling. The media looked elsewhere. The Fridge was just another fad that had run its course, like the Cabbage Patch Doll and Tiny Tim.
Some people blame Steiner, claiming he overexposed Perry. The agent does not dispute that, but he still believes it was the right way to go.
"With William, I felt we had to move fast and take the money while it was there," Steiner said.
"He was in such a unique position - running with the ball (as a part-time fullback) and scoring touchdowns - we couldn't realistically expect that to last. Plus, the Bears were the hottest team in football that year. Our feeling was, 'Let's go for it. '
"Randall is a different case. We feel he will continue to improve and stay among the elite for the next 10 years. His value in terms of endorsements will only get better. We can afford to take our time and think long-term with him.
"Randall has yet to pierce the regional market and go national, but we feel that's coming. If he has the kind of year we expect - and the Eagles emerge as a 'glamor' team, which I think they will - Randall should do very well (in endorsements).
"The league is full of great players," Steiner said, "but Randall Cunningham is a unique player. There's a difference. "
There is another difference as well: Cunningham is a black quarterback and there still aren't that many around. Will that make him less marketable outside Philadelphia?
Consider the Williams case. Here was a quarterback who set a Super Bowl record for touchdown passes (four) and still wound up with next-to-zero commercial offers.
Compare that to the $3 million Chicago's Jim McMahon made after his Super Bowl and the $1 million the Giants' Phil Simms made the following year.
Is it coincidence that the white quarterbacks got rich and the black one did not?
It is true McMahon had a lot of mystique going for him and Simms had the advantage of playing in the Big Apple, but that doesn't explain everything. Washington isn't exactly outside the media mainstream.
Some agents suggest Williams was a tough sell because he was seen as a one- game wonder. There wasn't any guarantee he even would be starting for the Redskins the following season, so how could a company build a million-dollar ad campaign around him?
It wasn't a racial thing, in other words. It was just business.
Maybe, maybe not.
"You'd have to be naive to think (race) is not a factor," Steiner said, ''but look around. There are some black athletes doing very well. Michael Jordan. Jackson. Doctor J. Obviously, it can be done.
"The individual's personality means a lot. How does he come across? Does he excite people with the way he plays? Is he distinctive? These are all factors, too, and these are areas where Randall stands out.
"People like him. They respect him. He's a heckuva talent. That's what they see more than anything."
In business as in football, timing is everything. And from a marketing standpoint, Cunningham 's timing could not be better.
He is blossoming at a time when Mike Schmidt has bowed out and the Flyers and Sixers are treading water. If Cunningham has another season like the last one, he will own Philadelphia much the way Erving did a decade ago.
Also, Cunningham 's star is rising at a time when many of the NFL biggies - McMahon, Marino, Bosworth, Howie Long, The Fridge, etc. - are on the wane.
With the league clamping down on the Ickey Woods "Shuffle" this season, fans will be looking around for a new darling, and Randall should be very available.
If all these pieces fall into place, Glazer will be a happy - and busy - man.
You see, it was Glazer who came up with the idea for a Randall Cunningham T-shirt. The shirt comes in either kelly green or white, and it has a sketch of Cunningham on the front. "The Scrambling Superback," that's what it says underneath.
Isn't it just a little, well, you know . . .
"Pretentious? " Glazer said. "Not really. There is a whole line of these shirts around the country, and each one has a catch phrase. Jim Kelly (of Buffalo) is 'Machine Gun Kelly. ' Montana is 'Two-Minute Magic. '
"I was thinking, 'What's Randall? He's more than a quarterback and he's not a running back. ' Then it hit me: He's a Superback. It's a hybrid term for a hybrid athlete. "
The T-shirts are $14 and up, depending on where you buy them. Cunningham got a nice advance up front, and he will make a percentage based on sales. Easy money. It will keep rolling in all season if the team does well.
Glazer represented Jaworski in his contract dealings with the Eagles and he still books appearances for current players, including wide receiver Mike Quick and kicker Luis Zendejas. But the Cherry Hill-based agent claims Cunningham is the hottest ticket he ever handled.
"Randall has sparkle, that's the best way to describe it," Glazer said. ''He has it on the field and off.
"Ron (Jaworski) played his heart out for this franchise and he did well (commercially). But Randall is just so spectacular, he can be a major star. I'm talking about national deals and really big money. "
The fact that Cunningham is a straight arrow (he doesn't smoke or drink and he actively campaigns against drugs) enhances his position. He represents a ''safe" choice as a corporate spokesman, and there aren't many around these days.
Diet Pepsi learned the hard way last year when it spent $8 million on an ad campaign starring Mike Tyson and Robin Givens. The TV spots had to be scrapped when Tyson and Givens split up. It was both costly and embarrassing for the company.
"That's why you see the rush toward Jordan and (Bo) Jackson because they're both good, solid guys," Glazer said. "Randall is the same way, and it's going to pay off for him. "
Glazer paints a pretty picture, but the whole thing will collapse if Cunningham has a bad year. What happens to all those T-shirts if the Scrambling Superback twists a knee or trips over his own ego?
Does anyone involved with Cunningham Inc. stop wheeling and dealing long enough to consider that possibility?
"You can't think negative," Glazer said. "You just have to make your deals and hope everything works out.
"I'm not worried. Randall will make it work. He always does, doesn't he? "
RANDALL FOR . . .
The following is just a partial list of Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham 's off-the-field endeavors:
* A TV commercial for Diet Coke.
* A regional print ad for Herr's potato chips.
* A local endorsement for a health and fitness chain.
* A national endorsement for Pro-Set football cards.
* Action posters for Nike and Sports Illustrated .
* A T-shirt that identifies him as "The Scrambling Superback."
* A weekly TV show on KYW, Channel 3 (debuting next month).
* A weekly radio show on WIP (resuming next month).
* An annual fashion show for the American Cancer Society.
* A sign-painting business that he operates out of his Cherry Hill home.
FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH
How much can a professional athlete make through off-the-field endorsements? Often more than he makes playing the games.
Here is what some jocks have made in just one season with sharp, aggressive marketing: