Sunday, September 24

The NFL Is About To Draft Its Next Great Punter — And Possibly The Position’s First Marketing Success Story

Matt Araiza didn’t expect to become the breakout star of this past college football season. He didn’t plan to earn nicknames like “Punt God” and “The Punter That Was Promised.” Nor did he think he’d be forgoing his final year of college eligibility and declaring for the NFL draft.

In fact, the San Diego State punter and placekicker had his eye on playing in his school’s brand-new stadium next season while going for a master’s degree. But then came the 50-, 60-, 70- and even 80-yard punts, a few NCAA records and the prestigious Ray Guy Award, given to college football’s top punter. Suddenly, everything changed for the 21-year-old.

“It’s like in basketball when someone has the hot hand,” Araiza tells Forbes. “I got the hot foot right now, and I want to take this momentum to the next level.”

That momentum will likely ensure a lucrative future: NFL punters earned $1.6 million on average last season. And in Araiza’s case, there could be even more money on the table. The San Diego County native already has a deal with Giorgio Armani that hasn’t paid him any cash but outfitted him in what he estimates is about $15,000 worth of clothing. He also collected around $7,500 from Panini on a rookie card deal, with an option to double that, a promising start for a player at a position that is often overlooked by marketers.

Without the name recognition that follows offensive stars like running backs and wide receivers, punters and kickers are lucky to do any better than five-figure deals from local and regional brands, according to George Washington University sports management professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti.

Still, while he may never match quarterbacks like Tom Brady ($45 million), Patrick Mahomes ($22 million) and Aaron Rodgers ($11 million) with their multimillion-dollar annual endorsement paydays, Araiza is on track to join a select group of special teams endorsers. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has done commercials for Dr Pepper, Duracell and Royal Farms. Former Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos punter Marquette King was an ambassador for headphones company Velodyne.

There’s more to it. Araiza is of Mexican descent, and the NFL is actively trying to embrace its global fan base. Four of the NFL’s biggest single-game attendance totals came in Mexico City, including a 1994 preseason game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Oilers that drew a record 112,376, and the league has plans to return there in 2022. Yet the number of Latino players in the NFL is less than two dozen, not even enough to field a whole team.

Brands based in Mexico could gravitate toward Araiza as an endorser, says Eugene Lee, a senior vice president at Vanguard Sports Group. But, he notes, “everything off the field has to align. There has to be on-field excellence, and there has to be upstanding character off the field. He has to be an attractive candidate for these brands as an ambassador.”

The rest is up to him, a significant challenge considering that punters tend to fly under the radar. While they play a vital role in the battle for field position—something Araiza excelled at with San Diego State—punters’ success doesn’t translate into points on the scoreboard or spotlight moments like game-winning field goals.

“Unlike catching an acrobatic touchdown catch or making a precise throw in coverage, there’s really not much camera time that’s devoted to the punt itself,” Lee says.

Even if he does manage to kick himself into the hearts of fans, Araiza will still need to hone his skills as a pitchman and build out his social media presence, which is a “huge driver” in finding brand deals today, Lee says. Araiza has less than 25,000 followers between Instagram and Twitter. Carolina Panthers punter Johnny Hekker, by comparison, has nearly 150,000 across the platforms.

Araiza won’t be part of the draft fanfare in Las Vegas this weekend, choosing to watch from home with family in San Diego, and says he’s not making sponsorships a priority. Instead, he is keeping his focus on landing one of the league’s 32 punting jobs, aided by his triple-threat ability to punt, kick off and hit field goals.

“If I go out there and I’m a Pro Bowler in my rookie year, deals will come,” Araiza says.

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