NEWARK – Peyton Manning chuckled at the question: Would he ever consider an endorsement deal with Omaha Steaks?
After yelling "Omaha" 75 times in his past two games, the Denver Broncos quarterback didn't dismiss the idea when asked about it at Super Bowl media day on Tuesday.
"Omaha has kind of taken on a life of its own," Manning told USA TODAY Sports.
The bigger question might be if the NFL would allow him to continue his famous "Omaha" calls during games if he did sign a contract with Omaha Steaks. The beef company, headquartered in the Nebraska city, told USA TODAY Sports that it wants to talk to Manning about a possible deal after the Super Bowl. Senior vice president Todd Simon already has a slogan in mind: "Real Mannings eat beef."
"We would have to address the matter if a player called out a brand name," NFL Spokesman Brian McCarthy said. "That has not happened yet."
Unlike sports such as NASCAR, the NFL doesn't allow players to be billboards for personal sponsors during official competition. But as technology evolves and NFL advertising becomes more valuable, new ways of making money emerge, testing the limits of what the league finds acceptable.
While "Omaha!" is now associated with Manning, it is a quarterback signal that some NFL teams have used for years, a code word used at the line of scrimmage. Manning seemed surprised by the attention it's received, noting it was part of the Broncos' offense before he arrived in 2012.
"It's a word that was given to me," Manning said.
The recent difference for "Omaha!" has been technology and audience size. More and better microphones can pick up more sound during games, transforming simple commands into valuable buzzwords – depending on who is speaking. In Manning's last game, businesses in Omaha even pledged to give his charitable foundation $800 for each "Omaha!" he barked during the national telecast – $24,800 for 31 times.
Now it could get even bigger. The same businesses plan to expand the fundraising program for Sunday's Super Bowl against Seattle and Simon said Omaha Steaks is serious about bringing Manning aboard. "We look forward to seeing where this idea might go," he told USA TODAY Sports.
Manning has not been paid by Omaha Steaks. He found the issue humorous Tuesday, saying he's also been asked if he's using his "Omaha" calls to "plant" a career for himself after football with Mutual of Omaha Insurance. He denied being capable of such a calculating plot.
"That's way too smart for me," he said.
It's anything but a dumb deal for sponsors. In the playoffs, a single mention of a brand name by a player to a national audience could be worth $20,000 to $40,000," said Jeff Nelson, director of analytics for Navigate Research, a Chicago-based firm that evaluates sponsorships in sports and entertainment.
In the Super Bowl, Nelson estimates such mentions could be worth $100,000 each.
"These values are so high because unlike a jersey patch that could be hard to notice or make out amidst all of the action, the audio of a QB at the line is part of the action," Nelson said. "It breaks through the clutter."
Similarly, in 2002, San Francisco 49ers receiver Terrell Owens celebrated a touchdown by pulling a Sharpie marker from his sock and autographing a football with it. Eleven years later, Sharpie is still bragging about it on its website, claiming the stunt gave it about $5 million in free publicity.
Sharpie did not pay Owens for the stunt. Afterward, the NFL warned Owens not to bring foreign objects into the game again.
By rule, the NFL also forbids players from promoting unapproved commercial apparel and equipment during games. Naturally, official league sponsors are favored. For example, Nike is the exclusive gear supplier for all 32 NFL teams, providing the league with more than $200 million annually.
The question is where to draw the line. Where money is to be had, the NFL is good at getting it, having amassed about $10 billion in revenue per year. Even the media hotel in New York for the Super Bowl has been rebranded as the "Super Bowl Media Center presented by Xbox One."
Instead of "Omaha," what if the league approved a number of sponsor names that could be used as possible signal words by quarterbacks, including "Nike"? Nike might pay extra for it and the players might get a cut along with the league.
The risks include a perception that the plays in the game are for sale and subject to influence from corporate sponsors.
"The moment you put anything between lines besides players, referees and the ball, you start to wonder what the effect it's having on the game," said Steve Seiferheld, senior vice president of consumer research at Turnkey Intelligence, a sports market research company. "They (the NFL) have to be very sensitive about that… The NFL is fine with NFL players endorsing pretty much anything they want away from the field. On game day, it's all about the shield (the league brand)."
The NFL also has to protect its TV partners, which pay the NFL billions for the rights to televise the games. If Omaha Steaks isn't paying the Fox network for advertising, the NFL and Fox might not want to give the company free airtime from Manning.
That's not to say that the league and the networks someday couldn't find a way to monetize quarterback snap counts at the line of scrimmage.
"If there were a relationship with the network, where every time that word is said, they flash up a hashtag (sign) for Omaha Steaks, I think that's different," Seiferheld said.
Blame the microphones for the buzz.
"Those cameras and boom mikes are hearing every single thing you say on every single play," Manning said.
To get the league and the networks to turn down their microphone power, he joked it might be a matter of testing their limits.
"I think you've got to say some bad things about the NFL and the commissioner," Manning said. "I think they would turn the volume down if you just started saying (bad things). It's the only way to get it fixed."