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The Michael Vick Economy Is Rebounding

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Everyone still wants a piece of the controversial NFL player.

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The last time NFL Pro Bowler Michael Vick played football was in Kansas. Specifically, Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was serving a 23-month sentence at the city's United States Penitentiary. In a scene straight out of The Longest Yard, Vick, in prison for his involvement in a vicious dog-fighting ring, reportedly played quarterback in jail yard games as a way to kill time and keep in shape.

On Sunday, he'll have an opportunity to finally get back on more familiar turf, as his new team, the Philadelphia Eagles, host the Kansas City Chiefs at Lincoln Financial Field. And with Philadelphia's starting quarterback Donovan McNabb likely to miss his second straight game due to a rib injury, the possibility of Vick seeing minutes is high. The game will attract not only Eagles fans and animal rights activists, but also that part of the sports industry whose main concern is sales.

The questions on everyone's minds are: Can Michael Vick return at the same level of play after spending 18 months in jail? Will the fans forgive him for his cruelty to dogs and allow him to refurbish his tarnished image? Gareb Shamus, CEO of New York-based Wizard Entertainment, which covers the gaming industry, says the answer is yes. "If anything, it's his notoriety, more than his athletic ability, that will contribute to a spike in his popularity," he says. "This is a period in our history where infamy makes you famous. And desirable."

At the time of his conviction, Vick was the highest paid player in football, with a 10-year, $130 million contract with the Atlanta Falcons that put him at number 33 on Forbes' "Top 100 Celebrities" list. But following his 2007 guilty plea in the dog-fighting case, NFL Commissioner Rodger Goodall suspended Vick without pay. Nike (NKE) also dropped a lucrative sponsorship contract with him and the NFL stopped selling his jersey and other merchandise. These events took a huge hit on Vick's finances, and while serving his time, he filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Fast-forward to the present: In August, Vick signed a one-year deal with the Eagles for $1.6 million, with a team option to extend the contract for another year at $5.2 million. The signing has drawn the ire of many, but it's too soon to tell if his reputation has taken a permanent hit. At the team's first home game last Sunday, just 50 people showed up to protest his presence on the team. Several online campaigns have sprung up to urge people to boycott the Eagles' corporate sponsors, which include Canon (CAJ), Budweiser, Gatorade (PEP), MasterCard (MA), Staples (SPLS), and US Airways (LCC). But whether these campaigns succeed in influencing the companies to withdraw their sponsorship of the Eagles remains to be seen.

On the other hand, there's some positive news for Vick. A day after signing his contract with the Eagles, the video-game company EA Sports added Vick to this years edition of Madden NFL, its bestselling multi-platform video game. Even more telling, Vick's number-seven Eagles jersey is the fourth-best selling jersey on NFLShop.com. The stats are based on sales at the site from April 1 to August 28; Vick signed with the Eagles on August 13, which means that his jersey broke the top five in sales in less than two weeks. And while Dick's Sporting Goods, whose headquarters are in Pennsylvania, is refusing to stock the jersey, the sporting goods chain Modell's reports that demand for the jersey is high.

Does this mean that Vick can put the past two years to rest? Some crafty entrepreneurs are betting against it. Among the items currently up for sale on eBay (EBAY) are t-shirts with the slogan "Vick's an Eagle, Hide your Beagle." On the gaming website y8.com, you can download the Michael Vick Dog Fight Game, which describes itself as a game in which "Vick tries to hide his dogs from the police. The dogs try to taste his delicious flesh. My money's on the dogs." If inclined, one could also purchase a Vick Dog Chew Toy, made of "state of the art dog material" for $15.95 (with free shipping). It also comes in a limited Prison Edition.

But perhaps the most interesting Vick-related item is no longer for sale; at the start of the 2009 NFL season, for $39.99 on NFLShop.com, shoppers could purchase an Eagles jersey customized with Vick's name and number on its back that was created as an item for one particular niche demographic: dogs.
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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