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About those commercials? Inside the business of being Josh Allen

About those commercials? Inside the business of being Josh Allen

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Apparently Josh Allen hasn’t visited the Bills Store.

If he had, he would have already seen the 2019 edition bobblehead of himself, clasping a football in front of his chest, a toothy white grin, eyes cast forward as if he’s looking for a receiver.

Is this the new one?” he asked when I handed the bobblehead to him during a late August interview in the Bills’ administrative offices. “I haven’t seen this yet.”

He was interested in the head-bobbing figurine, but in an understated, Josh Allen type of way. Which is to say he was smiling and agreeable (an apt trait for a guy holding his own bobblehead, which seems to be eternally nodding “yes”). But Allen was not in a mindset to fixate on himself.

"How did they do?” I asked.

"They did a good job!” Allen said. “I respect it, yeah.”

He pointed to the doll’s brown hair. They’ve got the little wave part right there,” he said, and noted the uniform. “All white,” he said. “I like it.”

I asked him to hold the bobblehead for a few seconds longer so I could capture the moment on my iPhone. Allen complied – he is an agreeable guy – but quickly handed it back.

Allen is only 23 and entering his second year as an NFL quarterback. As a sports-loving kid growing up on a farm in California, he collected bobbleheads (and Nike shoes, and New Era hats, all of which is relevant to his life now). Being a bobblehead is still cool for him. “It’s crazy to be in this world now,” Allen acknowledged. But he also knows not to get caught up in that, or any of the other celebrity-focused, hero-worship elements of his job.

Being Josh Allen is a healthy business, one that involves endorsement opportunities, spokesman gigs and appearances. If he succeeds as the Bills’ starting quarterback, his marketing potential will grow exponentially.

But that’s the key: Do well as a quarterback, and then as a brand.

“My approach is taking care of stuff on the field,” Allen said, “and everything else will kind of fall in its place.”

A tower of Josh

Walking into the Bills Store, then, wouldn’t be the thing for Allen to do. Not if he wants to stay focused on the sport rather than his expanding celebrity. Visit the team store at New Era Field and you’ll walk straight up to a tall display of all things Josh: Josh Allen T-shirts. Josh Allen photos, framed and ready for your wall. Josh Allen football cards, set neatly into plaques. Two varieties of Josh Allen bobbleheads — the white-jersey version he held in his hand, and a blue-jersey option, both $45, manufactured by FOCO, an NFL Players Association licensee.

There’s also a placard with a photo of Allen, arms crossed, gazing confidently into your eyes, wearing a Mona Lisa smile – and a stretch-fit Bills hat from New Era Cap, which has deals with the league, the team, and Allen himself.

Want an Allen jersey? Walk to the back left corner of the store. A Josh Allen selfie? You don’t even have to come inside. There’s a window-display image of the second-year quarterback visible to anyone driving by the stadium, where the Bills Store is located.

But then if you work at it, you can probably nab a selfie with the real-life, living-and-breathing Josh. The guy is charming with fans. During training camp at St. John Fisher College in Pittsford, Allen collectively spent hours signing autographs and posing for pictures after practice. He’s visible and fairly accessible around Buffalo, too.

“He’s everywhere,” said Josh Feine, a vice president at New Era Cap, which is headquartered in Buffalo. “He’s ingrained himself in this community. He’s at Sabres games. He’s at Bisons stuff. He’s on local golf courses. He’s embraced this community.”

Buffalo has embraced Allen. As a 2018 first-round draft pick who showed flashes of strong-armed brilliance in his first year, he could be the long-awaited answer to replacing Jim Kelly, the Hall of Fame quarterback who retired when Allen was an infant. But that’s not the only factor driving his popularity.

“He’s an approachable guy,” said Steve Tasker, the former Bills special teams star who played with Kelly and has since worked in broadcasting for CBS and the Bills and as a TV pitchman with Allen for West Herr Auto Group. “He’s a friendly guy who likes to meet people. It seems he almost thrives on it. I think it’s a real gift.”

It’s a great marketing tool, too, which is apparent in the companies lining up to work with Allen. During his rookie year, fresh off the first-round hype that can turbocharge marketing efforts, he appeared in promotions or posted social-media endorsements for several brands. Among them: Microsoft’s Surface tablets, Tommy Armour golf equipment sold at Dick’s Sporting Goods, Hyundai, and Hall of Famer-turned-broadcaster Michael Strahan’s suit line at JCPenney.

This year, Allen has endorsement deals with Nike and New Era. He is a spokesman for John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo and shot three West Herr commercials alongside Tasker. Allen is ranked No. 46 on the NFL Players Association’s list of top 50 sales in merchandise and player products, which includes items like those bobbleheads, jerseys and framed photos available in the Bills Store. That’s a 2018 ranking; in early 2019, he already jumped to 29. If Allen and the Bills do well this year, that number is almost certain to continue rising.

“He’s got that potential to elevate our team, our brand, our city,” said Tod Martin, founder of the Martin Group, a Buffalo-based marketing agency that counts New Era, Under Armour and Asics among its clients. Martin, who doesn’t work directly with Allen, points out that the Bills’ quarterback has a strong cross-generational appeal.

Fans old enough to recall the ’90s-era Bills hope Allen can finally fill that star quarterback role. Younger fans, whose Bills memories are dominated by the team’s 17-year playoff drought, hope Allen can help them experience the sense of week-to-week winning that exists only in their parents' and grandparents’ memories. They got a taste of the playoffs at the end of the 2017 season, months before Allen was drafted.

But those younger fans also like Allen because he seems authentic. He seems real. He might get a rock-star reception from fans, but he eschews a rock-star persona. That accessibility and his presence around town feeds the perception. So does Allen’s use of social media, which includes not only product promotions, but glimpses into his personal life. Allen’s girlfriend Brittany Williams, for example, has become something of a celebrity with Bills fans.

“That authenticity is more appealing to younger fans than pure grandeur and hype. “I think Josh Allen fits that mold pretty well,” Martin says. “He’s going to have an immediate impact.”

Playing the roles

Quarterback is a unique position in all of sports. It’s the only one where you become simultaneously the face of your team and a leader in your community.

“That’s a part of any quarterback nowadays in every city,” Jim Kelly told me in a late August phone interview. “You have to be the face of your franchise. You want to be able to have the fans come watch you every game. You want to be able to communicate with them.”

Kelly, who still lives near the stadium and works with the Bills, has gotten to know Allen and is impressed with his ability to navigate the spotlight of the job. “Every move you make, if you’re away from your front door, away from your home, people are going to be watching you,” Kelly said. “People are going to be talking about you. You walk into a place? ‘There’s Josh Allen.’ ”

There’s the temptation. Allen’s ability to gracefully handle the attention cast upon him makes him seem like the ideal candidate to successfully balance football and business. And maybe he is. Kelly, who knows the role intimately, is impressed. “He has always been himself,” Kelly said. “He has always been really good with people.”

But it’s early in Allen’s career, and progress in football is hardly constant. There will be bad weeks and even bad seasons. Kelly, too, is careful not to pronounce Allen the next star or the answers to fans' wishes; multiple times in our 10-minute conversation, Kelly emphasized that he likes what he sees in Allen but hasn’t spent a lot of time with him. All of which is to say that “face of the franchise” label should be used with caution.

“We now anoint these guys in the media as the ‘face of the franchise’ before they’ve ever taken a snap,” said former Bills General Manager Bill Polian, a Hall of Famer who brought Kelly to Buffalo and, later, Peyton Manning to the Indianapolis Colts. “They literally can’t find their way to the lunchroom and they’re now anointed by the press as the ‘face of the franchise.’ That’s always annoyed me greatly.”

The development of a young quarterback into a solid player is a four-year process, Polian says, no matter how good the athlete is. Following that logic, both teams and players’ agents would be wise to manage the marketing and endorsement efforts for that player on a similar timeline.

“It’s important to pace those deals,” said John Cimperman, a veteran sports marketer who was an executive with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and NHL’s Los Angeles Kings and Buffalo Sabres before founding his own agency, the East Aurora-based Cenergy, which he later sold.

“You don’t want to put too much pressure on a young player,” said Cimperman, who is now an executive vice president for the agency Fuseideas, “as well as you don’t want to over-promise to any corporate partners.”

The businesspeople around Allen are cautious on this topic. Bills front office officials declined to comment on the team’s marketing efforts that include Allen, and his agency, CAA Sports, doesn’t speak publicly about their clients’ deals. But the strategy crafted for Allen seems to be following that patience-driven timeline, with deals that are low-key, not overly time-consuming, and leave room to grow in the future.

His Nike deal is an example: Allen is one of several young NFL stars that has pacts with the company, and during a group visit to Nike’s headquarters in the offseason, he participated in some promotional shoots that haven’t yet been released. If he blossoms as a quarterback, presumably his Nike profile will, too.

For now, Allen is excited to call himself a Nike athlete.

“It was a dream of mine to be a Nike athlete, seeing commercials of Kobe (Bryant) and being a West Coast kid and seeing all the deals that he had with Nike and all the shoes that he released,” Allen said, adding, “When I was coming out, it didn’t really matter who else made offers. ... If another company was wanting to give me more money, it didn’t matter. I was going to go Nike.”

Locally, Allen’s work with West Herr Auto Group involved shooting three commercials with Tasker in a single afternoon last spring. The first one is a lighthearted spot in which Allen “meets” Tasker, ends up throwing him a long pass and then remarks, “Listen, I know you’re good at this TV deal, but maybe you should try the football thing.” His second and third West Herr commercials are timed to Thanksgiving/Black Friday shopping and the holiday season.

New Era, which has a deal with the NFL to be the exclusive provider of sideline headwear, counts Allen as one of its eight ambassadors across the league. That involves some appearances and social media posts, and the expectation of wearing New Era caps in public view — something Allen is inclined to do already. He grew up in California playing baseball in the summers and wearing San Francisco Giants hats by choice. “I’ve been wearing New Era caps for a long time,” said Allen, who recently wore a New Era golf cap while attending the U.S. Open. “Now I get paid to wear them. It’s pretty cool.”

Allen worked with New Era’s creative team to design a special-edition cap that will be released in October and sold to benefit Oishei Children’s Hospital. A patient from the hospital, along with a doctor and a nurse, also contributed to the design. As part of a deal with the hospital, Allen also makes appearances, visits patients, and is in a commercial to support fundraising efforts. The hospital announced Sept. 6 that he will also be donating $200 to the hospital for each of his touchdowns.

“It absolutely will increase donorship,” said Jody Lomeo, president and CEO of the hospital’s parent organization, Kaleida Health. “He’s a magnet. The more successful he is, obviously, on the field, (and) the more successful and genuine people see him off the field, the better it is for us. We’re not shying away from that.”

But Lomeo sees something more in Allen than a paid spokesman. When visiting with staff and patients, Lomeo said, Allen is “very true and very heartfelt.”

He added, “It goes back to a fundamental belief I have on not being able to fake caring. It means a lot to him.”

Allen has a more personal connection to Children’s than people realize. Years ago, when he was a child and living in California, Allen’s younger brother spent several days in a hospital fighting a rare condition called Kawasaki disease, which inflames blood vessels.

“I remember him being in the hospital for a week or two, and I remember it was very tough on him, tough on my family,” Allen said. “To go there and be at Children’s Hospital … it’s heart-wrenching. But at the same time, to go into these rooms and see these kids’ faces light up, and see how impactful just a simple visit can (be) for somebody, especially the families that are staying in there with their kids — it’s a tough one because of some of the kids you do see. But it’s the most meaningful one to me.”

Allen, whose contract with the Bills is reportedly worth $21 million over four years, considered starting a foundation but instead decided to support existing organizations. That includes the Fresno, Calif., chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, where his sister works in fundraising, and the Jessie Rees Foundation, which supports children fighting cancer. Allen wears a blue “NEGU” (Never Ever Give Up) bracelet from the foundation.

“I could start a foundation if I wanted to, but I think that’s maybe a little further down the road,” he said. “I’d rather help and just move from behind the scenes and do as much as possible there.”

For now, it’s football first, with some commercials and bobbleheads and caps along the way. If Allen becomes an even bigger deal on the field, then bigger business deals will come, too.

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