In the opinion ofat least one NFL team, Reggie Bush was not the best player in this year'sdraft. The Texans made N.C. State defensive end Mario Williams No. 1, whileBush, the former Heisman winner from USC, went to the Saints at No. 2. OnMadison Avenue, though, there's no debate: Bush is the darling. The runningback has endorsement deals with Adidas, EA Sports, Hummer, Subway and Pepsi,making him the most sought-after rookie ever. He will appear in six nationalcommercials, and his Adidas contract, worth a reported $5 million, is theleague's richest shoe deal. "It's unprecedented," says Marc Ganis,president of a Chicago sports-consulting firm. "But he has the potential tobe a special player."
Winding up withthe Saints may be the secret of Bush's off-the-field success. Doing businesswith Bush gives companies a chance to showcase their philanthropic leanings andjoin the post-Katrina rebuilding effort in New Orleans. Bush requires hissponsors to donate to a local charity; after signing him, Pepsi committed $1million to build homes in New Orleans. Likewise, Hummer extended its donationof 12 vehicles to the New Orleans police department for another year.
It helps, ofcourse, that Bush is highly mediagenic and, as a two-time national champion atUSC, a proven winner. "You have to have the package to be a highlysought-after endorser," said Dean Bonham, a sports-marketing consultant."You have to be a winner, have a persona, an interesting back story, and itdoesn't hurt if you're a nice-looking guy or gal."
The one problemwith Bush's business plan is that he and the Saints are far apart on contractterms. Last week his agents hinted that Bush won't report when training campopens on Thursday if he doesn't get a deal that's at least as lucrative as thesix-year, $54 million contract Williams signed with Houston. On Monday, withtalks proceeding slowly, it appeared that Bush would be a holdout.
Bush's reps saythe Saints promised to pay their client as if he were the top pick. But wouldbeing a holdout affect his status as a pitchman? "Once you cross that lineof being perceived as excessively greedy, something changes," Ganis says."This guy right now is sterling. Don't do anything to tarnish it."Bonham agrees, but adds that fans often forgive players they love:"Remember John Elway basically said, 'I'm not going to Baltimore.' Itdidn't take long for people to forget, once he started performing."