Long before Taylor and Travis, there was ‘The Refrigerator’
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As a marketing veteran, watching the last few weeks of the Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce saga has been like watching Halley’s Comet pass in the mid-1980s.
That’s because for almost 60 years, the National Football League has been a case study in smart public relations and marketing. Under the leadership of then-commissioner (and former PR guy) Pete Rozelle, the NFL went from a second-tier member of the American sports landscape into a global juggernaut that is worth about $142 billion in 2023.
While the league has not been immune to public relations fiascos and kerfuffles over the decades (things like that happen when you have a sport with tens of different owners, hundreds of coaches and general managers, thousands of players, and millions of fans each year), its rise to the dominant sport in America has been a series of victories for fans of brand awareness and strategic thinking.
Which makes the Taylor Swift/Travis Kelce media explosion that much more amazing. It is a fluke that hasn’t happened since the last time we glimpsed Halley’s Comet, when a young man from South Carolina propelled himself into America’s zeitgeist.
He was William “The Refrigerator” Perry. A native of Aiken and a product of the Clemson football team, he was drafted in the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft. Already something of a legend in South Carolina for his size and eating habits, Perry didn’t seem like a marketing superstar in the making especially when his position coach, Buddy Ryan, called him a wasted draft pick. But his head coach, Mike Ditka, had other plans.
Ditka started to give the 335-pound Perry the ball in goal-line situations, which led to just three touchdowns, but near-instant celebrity as his gap-toothed smile and a flair for giving interviews that were quote-heavy made him a media sensation.
The NFL wasn’t ready for “The Fridge,” but its marketing team soon rode his fame. He made guest appearances on TV’s “A-Team,” which was super-popular at the time. He wrestled next to Hulk Hogan. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. He had product deals with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, True Value, Frigidaire, Whirlpool, and more. There was even a G.I. Joe action figure in his likeness. It was estimated he made $4 million in endorsements in a single year at a time when his salary was $203,000.
As a native South Carolinian, it was fascinating to watch a fellow Palmetto Stater become so famous so fast. As a marketing person, it is fascinating because he opened up new doors for the NFL in terms of new fan bases, who wanted to know more about this likeable giant of man.
Perry faded from the spotlight in a few years as he wasn’t able to recreate the flash success of his rookie season. Since then, the NFL has been a structured marketing juggernaut. Yes, players such as Kurt Warner and Tom Brady came from seemingly nowhere to have lasting success, but their stories didn’t create a lot of marketing chaos. Underdog stories are easy to tell. The mania around Tim Tebow was definitely something big, but he was already famous from his college days at Florida. The NFL knew it was coming.
And that means things such as seeing Kelce’s jersey sales spike by 400% in the first week post Swift; Chiefs games bordering on must-see TV as the number of teen girls watching games has jumped 53% when Swift is in attendance; and the NFL becoming daily stories on entertainment websites.
So as the NFL celebrates its Swifties, remember it once thanked a South Carolinian for similar success.
Leah Stoudenmire is the founder and CEO of The Rock It! Co., a full-scale marketing and events company. With offices in Charleston and Greenville, the company serves clients across the country.