Much was made the other day when the USF football team bus – on the way from campus to Raymond James Stadium – passed a billboard of more than passing interest. The players were rubbernecking for there — near the intersection of I-275 and Fowler Avenue — was the much larger-than-life likeness of sophomore quarterback Matt Grothe. Next to it: USF’s Bullish logo. Below it: “Opening Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1.”
The ad makes eminently good advertising sense. In fact, there’s an identical one towering over the Southbound I-275 Westshore exit.
The 20-year-old Grothe is the USF franchise, if you will. Number 8 is that good. As a freshman, he led the Bulls in passing and rushing. He’s already a marquee player in the Big East Conference, where he was the BEC’s rookie of the year in 2006. He’s on the national media radar. Using Grothe to sell the Bulls’ brand is smart marketing.
It’s also, well, a little dicey.
College athletes, of course, don’t get paid – even the ones who are prominent in the few sports that actually generate revenue. That, however, is an argument for another day, but for the record: No, they shouldn’t be paid. The scholarship, the experience, the exposure, the contacts are the quid pro quo. If all that and Pell Grants aren’t enough, there are the pros, the semi-pros and the real, work-a-day world.
But at the same time the use of athletes’ likenesses seems a commercial reach outside the scholarship ambit and the athletic arena, per se. In the marketplace — whether it’s Peyton Manning’s Tennessee jersey when he was a student-athlete or Grothe’s Brobdingnagian Interstate image – these have tangible value, and entities besides the university are profiting. It’s not the same thing as a color photo on the sports page, a function of news gathering that is de facto marketing.
But if I’m USF and I’ve got Matt Grothe and nobody has a problem with it, I’d want him passing, running and towering too.