In the Zone with Peyton Manning

In the Zone with Peyton Manning

In the Zone with Peyton Manning

Ken Belson | 11/16/2013 | New York Times

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As the Denver Broncos ran out the clock in their win over the San Diego Chargers last weekend, football fans gasped as Peyton Manning, the undisputed face of the N.F.L., got up limping after being tackled around his legs.

The injury turned out to be only an aggravation of an earlier ankle sprain, and Manning said he would play Sunday in a prime-time showdown with the undefeated Kansas City Chiefs, who are atop the A.F.C. West, one game ahead of the Broncos.

Yet the concern over Manning’s health was a reminder of how valuable he is — not just to the Broncos, but the entire league. On pace to win a record fifth Most Valuable Player award and perhaps lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl for the first time in 15 years, Manning is a proven leader on the field, and a winner off the field, too.

He is the country’s best-known football player, the successor to Dan Marino, John Elway and Brett Favre, who all held center stage during their prime. Sponsors crave his aw-shucks grin and seemingly spotless personal life, and a raft of endorsement deals, including for Buick, DirecTV and Papa John’s, keeps him in the spotlight on nongame days.

Manning, 37, has one of the most lucrative contracts and the best-selling jersey, as well as a sense of humor that has made him a natural on “Saturday Night Live.” From a family of star quarterbacks, he has an unmatched football pedigree.

“It’s all part of the legend of Peyton,” said Fred Gaudelli, the producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football,” which will feature the Broncos four times this season. “It’s about him playing the position like no one else. Any team that has Peyton Manning makes a good team for ‘Sunday Night Football.’ ”

Manning’s record-setting season and commercial appeal is a welcome distraction for the N.F.L., which is grappling with a host of hits to its image, including Aaron Hernandez’s, the former Patriots tight end, being charged with murder; allegations that the offensive lineman Jonathan Martin was bullied by Richie Incognito and other teammates on the Miami Dolphins; and a heated debate about whether the Washington Redskins should change their name.

On top of those problems, player safety remains a concern, even after the N.F.L. agreed in August to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of retirees who accused the league of burying evidence that repeated head hits could lead to long-term brain damage. This month, the Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett and two other former stars were found to have signs of a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma.

This has not been a good year for star quarterbacks, either. Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Michael Vick have been sidelined by injuries, and backup quarterbacks are also being knocked out.

“I never like to see a quarterback get injured, I will say that,” Manning said Wednesday at the Broncos’ training facility while he sidestepped questions about the severity of his injury. “I think quarterbacks are a kind of unique fraternity, and you kind of pull for one another — maybe not when you’re playing against them that day.”

For now, Manning’s ankle sprain appears to be little more than a speed bump in an otherwise standout season. After returning from several neck injuries, he guided the Broncos to a 13-3 season last year, and the team is off to an even faster start this season. Manning reached 400 touchdowns in record time and passed Marino on the career passing list. One reason the Broncos are the top scoring team, averaging 41.2 points a game, is that Manning’s work ethic has rubbed off on others.

“Every day he comes in, and you can tell he loves practicing and everything about what this is,” said Adam Gase, the team’s offensive coordinator. “He’s been in the league a long time, but he acts like it’s his second year.”

Offense sells tickets, even more so when Manning is driving it. The Broncos have sold out their home games for 44 consecutive seasons, so Manning cannot help fill more seats. But tickets for resale average more than $300, according to, which tracks such data. Prices of tickets to Broncos road games are also steep.

Joe Ellis, the team’s president, said that Manning, along with Coach John Fox, who is away from the team after heart surgery, and Elway, who is the vice president for football operations, have revitalized fans, sponsors and network executives, who now race to show Broncos games.

“Fans know they’re watching one of the greatest,” Ellis said. “Peyton takes it all seriously, but he doesn’t take himself seriously. We’re at peak levels of popularity.”

Since Labor Day, the Broncos have been on six of the 11 most-watched television programs, and the team will be featured on six prime-time broadcasts, the maximum allowed for a team. Manning’s attention to detail extends to his readiness to speak to visiting reporters and television announcers, sometimes sending team spokesmen back to them with extra details he forgot to include in the interviews.

Naturally, he is a staple on sports radio across the Rocky Mountain states, where Manning — who has three years left on his contract — has helped fuel regional pride by making the team part of the national football conversation.
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It is estimated Peyton Manning makes $13 million a year from endorsements, including for DirectTV, for whom he has filmed advertisements, often with his brother Eli of the Giants.

“He’s out of central casting in almost every respect,” said Sandy Clough, who hosts a radio talk show on 104.3 the Fan in Denver. “He has his guarded side and he’s very protective of his image. He understands the importance of being a quarterback in the N.F.L.”

Clough said 95 percent of the conversation on his show was about the Broncos and, not surprisingly, the phone lines lit up after Manning’s ankle sprain. Part of the fear, he said, is that backup quarterbacks have a hard time replacing top stars.

Manning’s success on the field is also linked to his moneymaking potential off it. The Broncos and Manning’s handlers declined to provide specifics about his business dealings but, according to Jim Andrews at IEG, which tracks such deals, Manning earns an estimated $13 million a year from endorsements. If he were to win another M.V.P. award or lead the Broncos to the Super Bowl, Manning could earn another $2 million or more, “assuming he is interested in doing more deals,” Andrews said.

Paul Guyardo, the chief marketing officer at DirecTV, which has worked with the Manning family for 14 years, said: “He really resonates with our core customer, a family guy who loves sports. They’re good people, and that resonates in front of the camera.”

Given his success this year, Manning’s jersey has been the top seller all season, ahead of those for quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson, according to, the largest online seller of licensed sports merchandise.

Manning jerseys are also big sellers at the store attached to the Broncos’ stadium. On Thursday, Linda Holloway bought a bright orange Manning shirt. “He seems like a good guy,” she said, adding that she had become a fan when her family lived in Indianapolis, where Manning was involved in the community a lot.

Advertisers have tapped into his allure, too. Manning is the fourth-highest-ranked athlete endorser after Michael Jordan, Hank Aaron and Arnold Palmer, according to a basket of measures including awareness, likability and trust developed by Celebrity DBI, a division of Repucom, a global sports marketing agency. Among current athletes, Manning ranks highest, and when compared to all celebrities, he is in the mix with Tom Hanks and Oprah Winfrey.

“It comes down to the fact that he is playing great, he wins, and that’s what draws people to celebrities,” said Kathy Gardner, who runs Celebrity DBI. “He’s a juggernaut.”

The Broncos are now the sixth-most-popular football team; they were not in the top 10 before Manning arrived, Gardner said. Manning has even touched businesses he has nothing to do with. Joe Romano, a Broncos season ticket holder who owns eight Domino’s pizza shops around Denver, said sales when the Broncos play jumped about 25 percent the past three seasons.

“Peyton is tremendous fun to watch, and he certainly has this region jazzed about football,” Romano said, “and he’s driving sales of pizza through the roof.”

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