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Big Ben could lose advertisers

| Sunday, March 14, 2010

Marketing experts predict Ben Roethlisberger's second allegation of sexual assault in eight months could scare away advertisers who helped the Steelers' two-time Super Bowl champion earn $2.5 million through endorsements last year.

"After the first allegation, he gets the benefit of the doubt. Now he just looks stupid,'' said Bob Dorfman of San Francisco-based Baker Street Advertising, which publishes Sports Marketers' Scouting Report. "Even if this latest case proves to be some kind of entrapment or nothing happened, it just doesn't look very smart for him to be even close to some kind of situation like that.

"You would think he would be careful where he's hanging out, who he's hanging out with, what he's drinking. That sends up a warning sign to advertisers who are already scared to death right now using any athlete in their advertising, given the Tiger Woods situation.''

Woods, among the most popular athletes of all-time, has been dropped by Gatorade, AT&T and Accenture while Procter & Gamble's Gillette and Swiss watch-maker Tag Heuer placed their marketing relationships with the golfer on hold following revelations of his extra-marital dalliances with numerous women.

Woods' loss of marketing income could trickle-down to the Steelers' quarterback if Roethlisberger is charged with a crime in the case involving a 20-year-old college student who accused him of attacking her at a nightclub March 5 in Milledgeville, Ga.

Even the appearance of wrongdoing could be detrimental to Roethlisberger's earning potential, said Darin David of Millsport, a Dallas-based sports marketing agency.

"To have two cases pop up within a year affects how he's perceived by fans and companies,'' David said. "If it looks like a repeating behavior, companies are going to want to stay away from that.''

Bruce Tollner, one of Roethlisberger's representatives, did not return a phone call from a reporter seeking comment.

For now, Roethlisberger's sponsors are standing by him. He has national sponsorships with Nike and Dick's Sporting Goods, but most of his deals are with local or regional businesses, including PLB Sports Inc. of Robinson, No. 1 Cochran Automotive and Big Ben BBQ Sauce.

PLB Sports Inc. President Ty Ballou said in January his company never considered ending its five-year association with Roethlisberger after a Nevada casino worker filed a civil lawsuit claiming Roethlisberger sexually assaulted her during a 2008 celebrity golf tournament in Lake Tahoe. The lawsuit remains on hold while the Nevada Supreme Court considers a venue-change request.

Roethlisberger denied the allegations and has sued the woman for damages to his image and off-field earning potential.

Ballou said overall sales of Big Ben Beef Jerky are "heavily driven by how the team and the player does.''

By comparison, Ballou is now taking a different stance regarding his company's relationship with Roethlisberger. Ballou said he is evaluating the recent allegation more critically than the civil case.

In January, Ballou told the Tribune-Review: "We said we're going forward (with Roethlisberger), and I'm very happy we did.''

During an interview three days ago, Ballou said: "To be quite frank, there's not too many positives to come out of this. It's certainly had some impact. Beef jerky is our brand. Big Ben is all over our brand. It's a very concerning situation. We're going to go forward with the product as we have for the past five years, and then we're just going to have to see how this plays out.''

John Kosko, owner of Big Ben BBQ sauce and Roadside Ribs in South Fayette, is taking a much stronger stance in support of Roethlisberger.

"I have nothing but positive things to say from our experiences with Ben,'' Kosko said.

Roethlisberger's likeness appears on five flavors of Big Ben BBQ sauce and three fully-cooked meats that are sold in local stores.

Roethlisberger's endorsements "are not for the money'' but go toward area fund-raising ventures, Kosko said.

Over the past three years, Roethlisberger's endorsements with Big Ben BBQ helped raise roughly $150,000 for various charitable organizations.

"We're hoping that everything gets straightened out, and it's business as usual," Kosko said. "Ben has been great with the fund-raising.''

Dorfman said national sponsors such as Nike will keep Roethlisberger on its roster of athletes, although he probably wouldn't be associated with his own brand until or unless his legal matters are settled.

In time, depending on the outcome of the sexual allegation in Georgia and the civil case in Nevada, Roethlisberger could return to becoming a sought-after spokesperson entrusted by companies to sell their products.

"(Swimmer) Michael Phelps still has endorsements (following the publication of a photograph showing him smoking marijuana), and we're about to see how Tiger can bounce back,'' David said. "Certainly, it's going to be hard for them to completely recover. But over time, maybe something like this goes away.''

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