The Franchise of Peyton Manning

By Jason Lisk

When the Indianapolis Colts and Denver Broncos meet on Sunday, one of the most popular and iconic NFL franchises will be at the forefront. I’m not talking about the Colts, the franchise that gave us Johnny U’s black socks, or the Denver Broncos and their storied history with John Elway. Peyton Manning can, as he approaches his 39th birthday, make claim as the 33rd NFL franchise, and is probably more popular than most of them.

Ever-present in endorsements, he individually generates more income from advertisers than most complete NFL rosters. As hot new players pop up every year then fade, Manning is continually near the top of merchandise sales. He’s touched the fan bases of two NFL franchises in profound ways, and shifted their demographics.

It feels like this game, in many ways, is another crossroads for Manning. For the last 12 years, when healthy and playing, he has finished outside the top 3 in MVP voting only twice (and both of those, Brady unanimously in 2010 and with 49 votes in 2007, he might have been voted top 3 if there were multiple votes Heisman style).

This year, after starting off the season as the presumptive MVP favorite through the first seven games, his numbers really tailed off. He went from 22 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in that 6-1 start, to 17 touchdowns and 12 interceptions in the last nine games. While there have been injuries on offense that have certainly played into that change as well, there has been plenty of talk about his arm strength and whether he is wearing down


One area he is not faltering is in endorsements. Manning is the leading endorser in the NFL, and can often be seen in commercials ranging from DirecTV to Nationwide jingles to Gatorade to his Papa John’s commercials.

For the 2013 season, Manning led the way for NFL players with $12 million in endorsements. Using the figures from this list about the top 100 paid athletes in advertising, only fifteen players were above $150,000 in endorsements in 2013. Only Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Eli Manning, and Aaron Rodgers were even within half Peyton’s total. Even making generous assumptions about the endorsement money brought in by players not on that list, Manning made more in endorsements than at least 30 NFL franchise rosters in 2013.

This Bloomberg piece from February detailed how Manning could have boosted his advertising profile even more with a Super Bowl win.

“No NFL player has more mainstream appeal than Manning, who is the most trustworthy athlete in the U.S., according to Repucom, a global sports market research agency. He’s also the most influential athlete, ahead of five-time National Basketball Association Most Valuable Player Michael Jordan, and the most well-liked in America, Repucom says.”


From April 1st of this year to October 31st, Manning was the leading jersey seller, according to NFL Shop, ahead of Russell Wilson, Johnny Manziel, Colin Kaepernick, and Tom Brady. This, mind you, is three years after changing his laundry to Denver’s Orange and Blue.

According to info provided by the NFL, for the periods April 1, 2013-March 31, 2014, and for April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013, Peyton Manning was 2nd in jersey sales, behind Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III, respectively.

Players who are on one team for a long period of time should stagnate in jersey sales, even if extremely popular, because there comes a saturation point where people who have purchased a jersey aren’t getting another. That’s why we see spikes in jerseys for someone. You won’t be seeing Johnny Manziel in the top five again after this year. Russell Wilson rode the wave of fewer people having his jersey, and rocketing up the charts after the Super Bowl. The Robert Griffin III craze seems like decades ago, as does Tebow mania.

Manning being in the top two for three straight years in Denver is testament to his popularity among fans, and his staying power as a reliable purchase. Even before he left Indianapolis, he was 4th in jersey sales in his last season played as a Colt, after a decade where fans had been gobbling up his blue Colts #18 jersey.

People still can’t get enough of Manning. When you go to the NFL Shop, there are 256 different Manning items you can purchase. For perspective, Kaepernick is second with 171 items, while Drew Brees (96), Russell Wilson (93), Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Andrew Luck (all 87) have nearly a third of the items of Manning for sale.


This fall, the Harris Poll released their 2014 NFL fan results, and Denver supplanted the Dallas Cowboys as America’s Team. Just three years earlier, when Tim Tebow was lighting up ESPN (and our site) with seemingly endless stories about everything, Denver was 17th in popularity.

The Colts have gone the other direction. Andrew Luck provided an immediate boost that most teams going through a 2-14 season do not have. Indianapolis is in the playoffs for the third straight year with Luck as quarterback, and there has been no prolonged losing period that should have impacted fan outlook. Indianapolis came in 26th in the Harris Poll in 2014. They were 2nd in the 2010 release, the last full season Manning played in Indianapolis before the neck injury.

That data appears to show a shift in fan bases, and that a fair amount of the popularity was attributed to Manning.

Nate Dunlevy wrote Blue Blooda book about the Colts’ history once they moved to Indianapolis in 1984. In it, he noted:

In 1997 [Manning was drafted a year later], more people came to watch 18-year-old boys play basketball than came to watch the Colts play the New England Patriots.”  (55,125 watched the State Finals in the RCA dome, the Colts-Pats drew 53,625) . . . In 1984, the Indiana high school basketball finals outpaced the football finals by 9,000 fans.Twenty-six years later, those numbers flipped. Attendance at the IHSAA nearly doubled…by 2009, football beat basketball by 17,000 fans.

Indianapolis was in the middle of a hoops hotbed, and the Colts were largely an afterthought for much of their time in Indianapolis. They were among the ten least supported franchises heading into the 1998 NFL Draft. To get some perspective on just what impact Manning had, I asked Dunlevy for his thoughts on what this data seems to be showing, that a fair amount of Colts fans may have in fact been fiercely loyal Manning fans, raised on football once he became a star.

“Since he left, a lot of Manning fans did abandon the team,” Dunlevy said, “this is especially true in the South. The Colts were very popular in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana, but now, those hotbeds have cooled.”

Locally, games still sell out, according to Dunlevy, though ticket demand is not what it once was. The biggest difference is now the national following.

“Nationally, there’s no question,” Dunlevy said, “Manning fans followed him. He engenders fierce loyalty from fans who usually talk about ‘what he stands for.’ Peyton represents something to people. He’s the Plantonic Ideal of football players.”

“Some of it is obviously about winning, but a lot of it is about him. When, with tears in his eyes, he thanked fans for letting him be their quarterback, it hit home to a lot of people. People identify with and care about Peyton Manning. He’s still the most popular quarterback in Indianapolis, even among Colts fans.”

“Colts fans love Andrew Luck and are glad to have him, but until he wins a title (and maybe even after), this will still be a Manning town first. Luck jerseys are only just now outnumbering Manning jerseys at games. It took three years, but it’s finally happened. Still a lot of 18s still dot the crowd though.”

The Facebook data also supports this. Facebook data on team “likes” provides a much larger sample size than the Harris Poll research (and, more than just answering a question, speaks to behavior and investment). It shows that the fan bases of the two clubs have basically swapped positions, and as much as 40% of the Colts fans from the Manning days have moved elsewhere, likely with Manning.

The total number of Facebook likes has increased exponentially over the last five years, but if we look at percentage data, we can see shifts.

Here’s a summary of the percentage of total NFL team “likes” on Facebook (from 2011 right before Manning’s season-ending surgery, 20122013, and 2014) accounted by Denver and Indianapolis fans.

Gradually–despite a young star quarterback in Luck–we’ve seen the numbers drift in opposite directions and mirror each other. It should be noted that Denver is not the most popular team on Facebook–Dallas still solidly holds that distinction. It does suggest there might be plenty of casual fans who flock to Manning and, hence, the Broncos.

If there really are 2% of NFL fans out there who identify more strongly with Manning than rooting for laundry, then he has a bigger following than at least ten different NFL franchises. Some of those followers may be a little conflicted this weekend, and may have a few jerseys hiding in the closet.

[feature image, GIF, and three photo image by Michael Shamburger]