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BLEDSOE IS HOT TALENT AS A CORPORATE PITCHMAN

Everybody loves a winner. And when companies saw the Buffalo Bills sell 1,500 season tickets in the three days following the signing of quarterback Drew Bledsoe, they began picking up the phone and seeking Bledsoe for marketing deals.

But Bledsoe has been selective about which companies he endorses. Bledsoe has deals with Tops Markets, Pontiac-GMC, Meyers RV, WGR-FM "97 Rock" and WEDG-FM 103.3 "The Edge."

"Drew's philosophy on marketing is to form a small number of relationships with companies he believes in and with which he can grow over a long period of time," said David Dunn, Bledsoe's agent. "It certainly is not to do everything that comes his way."

And it's not like he needs the money. In his 9-year NFL career, Bledsoe has made $45 million. But marketing is part of the job. Quarterbacks who disregard the opinion of fans do so do at their own risk.

Ask Rob Johnson.

Fans never embraced Johnson's California attitude and backwards hats and he was not as hotly pursued by advertisers as Bledsoe and other Bills quarterbacks. And with his down-to-earth, hard-working persona, Bledsoe seems like he was born and bred in Buffalo instead of Ellensburg, Wash.

"He has his priorities in order and people can see that," Dunn said. "He understands the importance of family and friends and fans and realizes his good fortune in being able to play a game he loves dearly."

So when Dunn or the Bills approach him with an offer from a company, Bledsoe doesn't ask about money first.

"My fist question is, 'What is the time commitment?' " said an unshaven Bledsoe, speaking after practice last week. "During the season I try to do a minimal amount of stuff. During the off-season I'll do a little bit more, but I haven't chosen to do much."

One company Bledsoe has chosen to work with is Tops Markets. Tops has a marketing contract with the Bills, but the Amherst-based grocer has a separate arrangement with Bledsoe.

"Our athletes are independent contractors," said Russ Brandon, the Bills' vice president of business development and marketing. "They can't utilize the Buffalo Bills marks or trademarks or anything related to the Bills without our approval or our relationship with that company."

A few weeks ago, Tops put up billboards that feature Bledsoe in his No. 11 jersey holding a Tops Bonus Card with the slogan, "In the pocket. Get some quarters back."

The billboards have attracted some attention.

"I'll be in the car with the boys and they'll say, 'Daddy, what are you doing on the sign?' " Bledsoe said.

On the radio ad, Bledsoe says, "It's no secret that I've got a hearty appetite. That's where my friends at Tops Friendly Markets come in. With over 4,000 different Bonus Card items on sale every week, I can really stock up."

The announcer then says, "Eating like a pro. Just one more thing that costs less with Tops."

Tops had Jim Kelly tossing groceries into a shopping cart for a TV commercial in late 2001. The supermarket saw similarities between Kelly and Bledsoe.

"Part of what makes (Bledsoe) marketable is he is approachable to someone that sees him in the spotlight," said Shehnaz Engineer, director of marketing and advertising for Tops. "He comes across as down to earth and perhaps that's what makes him similar to Jim Kelly. He was also one of those approachable people."

And Bledsoe's popularity extends to the national level.

He is the AFC's leading vote-getter among fans in Pro Bowl balloting on NFL.com (behind only Green Bay's Brett Favre, from the NFC). And, according to figures released by the league halfway through the season, Bledsoe was the third-most popular NFL player among visitors to NFL.com (behind Favre and Dallas' Emmitt Smith).

Finally, Bledsoe's jersey ranks ninth in sales among all NFL players.

Such popular athletes can command an appearance fee of $25,000 to $50,000 for two hours of their time, said Kim Zayotti, owner of Zayotti Marketing in the Boston area. She previously worked for Woolf Associates, which negotiated most of Flutie's endorsement deals.

"Drew's a handsome guy, very personable and a class act," she said. "He was extremely professional when Tom Brady was given the No. 1 position (quarterbacking the New England team). That's really an asset as far as corporations are concerned. It showed his team spirit and his loyalty."

How much such an athlete might get paid to do a radio commercial or regional TV commercial depends mainly on the length of the contract, the time to produce the ad and other factors, Zayotti said.

"For a regional ad, it would probably be a low six-figure deal," she said.

But Bledsoe still lacks one thing that Kelly and Flutie had -- a cereal named after him.

Kelly Krunch raises money for Hunter's Hope Foundation, a charity to raise money and public awareness of Krabbe disease and other leukodistrophies. Flutie Flakes raises money for the Doug Flutie Jr. Fund for Autism. Bledsoe has created the Drew Bledsoe Foundation, which funds "Parenting with Dignity," a program to help children by teaching parenting skills.

"(Bledsoe) wanted to prove himself in the market here before he went out and did a cereal," said Melissa Heher of PLB Sports in Pittsburgh, the company that markets Kelly Krunch and Flutie Flakes. "But hopefully next year we can put something together."

e-mail: lhaarlander@buffnews.com

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