Deion Sanders, be it by sermon, commercial or YouTube, can still sell anything
Deion Sanders steps out of the car onto the tarmac and greets a familiar face. There’s that smile that’s netted him millions of dollars in endorsements going back five decades. There’s the accompanying embrace he always offers when seeing an old friend.
As he inches toward the waiting jet on this April day in Boulder, Colo., Sanders is ready to transform. He’s going to work. Football, while ever present, isn’t the calling today.
Six days after Colorado sold out Folsom Field for its spring football game, Sanders is bound for yet another keynote speaking engagement, this time in Minneapolis for the 2023 National Forum for Black Public Administrators. The 56-year-old former two-sport athlete who has captivated attention spans since the early 1990s is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, brash personality and head football coach.
On this day he is going to deliver a sermon only Deion Sanders can. In recent years, he’s become a coveted speaker for conventions around the country, and once again, he has commandeered a secure place in the commercial marketing universe.
“Brands are always going to gravitate to him. There’s going to be a generation of him doing a music video with MC Hammer, there’s always that entertainment element that comes with being Prime, or Neon Deion or whatever incarnation of him that you remember,” says Jason Notte, who covers sports marketing for Adweek. “That appeal doesn’t wear down, and honestly, is only enhanced when he takes a position like this where he can be in a position that is high-profile.”
He’s in demand for just about everything as fascination intensifies into the magnetic coach’s eyebrow-raising overhaul of the Colorado program, which he took over last December, and what will transpire when the Buffaloes finally kick off at TCU on Sept. 2 on national television. Before the plane door closes, Sanders, who stunned college football three years ago by taking his first college coaching job leading Jackson State, a Historically Black College and University in Mississippi, picks up his phone and checks in with a coach on his staff.
Sanders requests a recruiting update as soon as they land in Minnesota in roughly 90 minutes. Once the wheels lift off, Sanders cuts off communication to the rest of the world and eats the KFC order brought in just for him. He’s reading the briefing document given to him to get acquainted with the audience he’ll be addressing.
“He could request any kind of food he wanted, but he requested KFC,” says Garth Knutson, chief marketing officer for Aflac, who traveled to Minneapolis with Sanders.
Sanders eats half of his meal in-flight and keeps the rest with him throughout the day. His preference for the food will, with time, result in yet another business partnership.
Upon his arrival at the conference at the Hyatt Regency Minneapolis, hundreds of attendees want a piece of Coach Prime inside the Nicollet Ballroom, where he’ll share the stage with Aflac president Virgil Miller for a session titled “Generation Next.” The metamorphosis of one alter ego bouncing to another in real time — the different Prime personas — is something he pulls off effortlessly, those who work with Sanders say.
The lights will shine wherever he sits. Football is life, sure, but Sanders is out to triumph anywhere he chooses to venture. “WIN!” he routinely posts on his social media in all-caps block letters. In the long-antiquated world of college football, he is mixing it up. He’s been denounced by some head coaches around the country regarding his unconventional methods at Colorado. His unvarnished takes, like preferring to recruit quarterbacks from two-parent homes, and the non-stop attention he draws don’t sit well with some.
“I’m not even playing the game, and you’ve got an opinion of me,” Sanders recently said when asked of others’ opinions of him. “I love it, but I don’t care.”
Just like his bombastic high-stepping days as the best cornerback on the planet, he’s part of the daily pop culture conversation. And, love him or loathe him, he’s got America hooked.
Sanders has never been shy about wanting it all.
It’s evidenced by the theme of a 1995 Pizza Hut commercial with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, who jokingly prods Sanders on what kind of pizza he prefers. At every turn, Sanders responds with, “Both.” At the end of the 30-second clip, Jones asks Deion if $15 million or $20 million would get him to re-sign with the Cowboys.
Sanders smiles, shrugs and says, “Both.”
Sanders is a marketer’s dream. His expeditious rise in the college football coaching realm has reignited opportunities despite being a polarizing figure for some fans and skeptical peers.
The name plate in front of Sanders when he was introduced as Colorado’s new coach on Dec. 4, 2022, read “COACH PRIME.” He signed a five-year, $29.5 million contract and in the months since has bluntly told players they weren’t cut out for the program.
“I know it was a huge overhaul, but it had to be done,” Sanders said this month.
The personal fallout from Deion Sanders’ unprecedented roster flip at Colorado
Colorado has 68 new scholarship players since he started a rebuild that highlights the changing model of college football, in which athletes can enter the NCAA transfer portal and freely move to new programs. Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi and Oklahoma coach Brent Venables have criticized Sanders’ approach, leaving Sanders with the perfect amount of fodder.
“He is not mad at me, he is mad at the situation in football now that allowed his best player to leave a year ago,” Sanders said of Narduzzi in an interview with 247Sports in June. “I don’t know who he is; if he walked in here right now I wouldn’t know him.”
In his office inside the Colorado football facility, a familiar message behind his big custom black desk reads:
YOU LOOK GOOD, YOU FEEL GOOD
YOU FEEL GOOD, YOU PLAY GOOD
YOU PLAY GOOD, THEY PAY GOOD!
According to Spotrac, Sanders made an estimated $33 million during his NFL career and an additional $13 million for his days in Major League Baseball. But that’s just part of it. Since his rookie year in 1989, Sanders has had partnerships with major companies such as Pepsi, Nike, Under Armour, Burger King and American Express.
His video game, “Prime Time NFL Football,” was Sega Sports’ attempted and ultimately failed answer to EA Sports’ crown jewel, “Madden NFL.” He was in a Pepsi commercial with Wile E. Coyote in 1996.
Just last month, Sanders teased a return to Nike, which he first signed with in 1992, on his social media. He’d had a falling out with the company due to feeling under-appreciated. His ensuing relationship with Under Armour was so strong that he helped convince Jackson State to switch from Nike to Under Armour. When he arrived at Colorado, a Nike school since 1995, Sanders often wore more personal brand gear rather than Nike gear in Buffs black and gold.
Now Nike is planning on launching new Coach Prime gear, according to USA Today.
Through his last year in the NFL in 2005 and beyond, Sanders remained relevant, through his play, through talking, or as he told Jones in that commercial, both. Where there is financial opportunity, Sanders has shown his willingness to explore. He’s had multiple reality TV shows, including one that lasted a year on Oprah Winfrey’s network. He was one of the first celebrities to join Bear Grylls’ show “Running Wild,” where he repelled down red rock cliff faces in southern Utah. He also spent 14 seasons as an analyst on NFL Network.
“Deion is the original athlete marketing machine,” said Constance Schwartz-Morini, co-founder and CEO of SMAC Entertainment and Sanders’ longtime business partner and agent, in an email. “He created his own brand, PRIME, and has always marketed himself and his pursuits hand-in-hand, from the moment he was drafted to today.
“If you really listen to his messages, he’s always supporting, promoting, lifting others up. People may see PRIME, and hear Coach, but if they truly listen to his message, you will understand the similarities and differences. Ultimately, Deion Sanders, Prime Time and Coach Prime are all the same man on a mission.”
His transformation into Coach Prime became a seamless next step on his well-worn path. Wherever he’s gone, Sanders has brought change. That hasn’t always sat well with his critics, of which he’s had plenty.
That’s never mattered to the man in the square-shaped shades.
“I. Don’t. Care. Look at me. What about me would make you think that I care about your opinion of me. Your opinion of me is not the opinion that I have of myself. You ain’t make me, so you can’t break me. You didn’t build me so you can’t kill me,” he said at a recent Colorado news conference. “I’ve been dealing with this foolishness since Pee Wee football, man. I’ve been him. I’ve been a difference-maker, a game-changer. I’ve been that guy. So what would change now that I’m coaching? Not a dern thing.”
As he attempted to help reestablish Jackson State as an HBCU power by reeling in top-level recruits and getting games on national TV, he also utilized his marketing presence in a time of need. When Jackson, Miss., was going through a water crisis in the summer of 2022, his longtime partnership with Pepsi helped donate meals, money and clean drinking water.
Notte said that makes Sanders that much more alluring for companies.
“Brands aren’t dumb,” Notte said. “They see that.”
Sanders’ list of current partners includes Aflac, Subway, Oikos yogurt, and most recently, Chevrolet and KFC. He also partnered with IcyBreeze, a portable air conditioner and cooler as well as a hair restoration company called RESTORE. To strike a deal with Sanders isn’t simple. You must prove your collaborative worth, according to Schwartz-Morini, who said Sanders is involved in the details, from the creative to what he’s wearing.
“For us, a successful partnership isn’t one where we’re checking off deliverables on a contract,” she said, “it’s about going above and beyond and thinking about how we can elevate one another.”
In a KFC commercial that debuted this June, Sanders is steering an elongated KFC golf cart with his five children — Deiondra (31), Deion Jr. (29), Shilo (23), Shedeur (21) and Shelomi (18) — through a KFC drive-thru window. When son Shilo mocks his dad’s catchphrase, “It’s all good, baby,” Sanders leans over and says, “You ain’t me.”
Maybe not. But that’s not to say they don’t take after their father. While Sanders missed Pac-12 media day in July in Las Vegas due to another surgery to remove blood clots from his leg, Shedeur, Colorado’s starting quarterback, held the mic on stage and had a stage presence most players did not. He joked. He teased interviewers. He sounded like a version of Prime.
Colorado’s athletic department added not just Deion when he chose Boulder, but his family, too. Shilo, a safety, also joined his dad and Shedeur as a transfer from Jackson State. Shelomi transferred to the Buffs women’s basketball program. Her nickname is “Bossy,” but in a video posted on a Sanders’ YouTube channel last month, it was dad who was coaching Bossy during a workout telling her to kick it into gear.
As she’s catching her breath, she responds to Sanders’ motivational attempt that she doesn’t want to be him or her brothers. She wants to be herself.
“Well, that’s a great answer,” he responds. “Ain’t no prize for it, though.”
Olivia Harlan Dekker had a chance to be schooled in the Sanders Way. Dekker, who has been a sportscaster for ESPN, Westwood One Sport, The Big Ten Network and BetMGM, was hired to emcee at the 2023 NADA (National Automobile Dealers Association) Show in May in Dallas. She was going to share the stage with Coach Prime. In the green room before the event, Deion Sanders Jr. filmed and uploaded to YouTube a seven-minute video of his dad. Deion and Deion Jr. explained to Dekker: “We’re flooding the market.”
With the help of Deion Jr. and SMAC, his production partner company, and others, Sanders posts unfiltered behind-the-scenes footage from life on campus to his motivational talks at team meetings to jet-setting around the country for speaking engagements, and even to the more dire circumstances. Sanders’ health issues have necessitated surgeries on his legs in recent weeks and months to remove blood clots and prepare for further procedures.
‘You’re getting a living diary’: Meet Uncle Neely, the man behind the Deion Sanders videos
Rather than reading anonymous sources citing his health, Sanders’ team posted videos of his recovery in the hospital in a gown.
“Coaches may have to start taking a look at the way that Deion is approaching his not only in-house, but very insular, approach to media,” Notte said of Sanders’ control of his promotion and messaging.
At the NADA Show, Sanders was the first speaker on the last day of the convention. A 9 a.m. slot on a Sunday. The scene transcended from hungover heads to hooting and hollering. It was, as described in an in-depth Slate piece on the convention and the Republican mindset, as “the Church of Deion.” Sanders, an expert at knowing his audience, played to the room. As detailed in the Slate story, Sanders said: “We gotta get back to the basics. You all are providers, leaders, and conduits of change.”
He brought up, as he has previously, how he ranks his children on what they’ve done to impress him lately. (Shilo recently attested that he is “the No. 1 son.”)
Dekker, the daughter of legendary broadcaster Kevin Harlan, has been around star power her whole life. The on-stage aura of Sanders left a mark.
“You can’t run out of personality. He’s so enigmatic and he has such control of the room. He’s a true performer, and I mean that as a compliment, not as a con artist,” Dekker said. “He was electric in this room. He had people hanging on every word and clapping after every sentence. Everything that he says sounds like a bumper sticker or it should be sewn on a pillow.”
Colorado knew that Coach Prime would be zig-zagging across the country whenever he had time to speak and earn the reported $100,000-$200,000 speaking fees. His contract stipulates that Sanders must inform athletic director Rick George before every scheduled professional speaking engagement.
And the demand for Coach Prime is still peaking. Sanders spoke for an hour at the Edison Electric Institute awards dinner June 12 in Austin, Texas, taking the same stage as power players like Elon Musk. There he told the crowd: ‘‘Every day you should be committed to excellence. What if we gave it our all, every darn day?’’
An Edison Electric Institute spokesperson said Sanders “was authentic, well-received and got a standing ovation.”
One of the YouTube channels devoted to Sanders, “Thee Pregame Show,” featured a two-part behind-the-scenes look at the event. Retracing his own path to stardom, Sanders tells the crowd about his early vow to his mother, Connie Knight, that she’d never work another day in her life. “You can clap,” Sanders gives permission to the audience.
“His attitude and energy is infectious. He is 100 percent authentic and real. There’s no sugarcoating with him,” Schwartz-Morini said. “He is a man of faith and values and Deion lives by them. He cares about everyone and sees the best in people. You don’t have to love football to listen and believe in what he’s saying.”
On stage in a houndstooth black and gray suit, black shirt and gold pocket handkerchief, Sanders goes on to expound upon his ability to, “see past the smoke and the fire and past the curtains” and always be himself. “Quit allowing people to tell you who you are,” he says to the crowd.
He exists as himself in any dimension he puts himself in. As polarizing as he can be in comments sections and sports talk, in these professional business settings, that doesn’t seem to matter at all.
Three days after his standing ovation in Austin, Sanders was in Las Vegas speaking at a convention for Scheduling Institute, a company that helps physicians with their private practice businesses. On his Instagram page, Sanders’ video caption described his message as such: “I challenged the attendees to stop making excuses and most importantly always be DOGS and go get it!”
He’s filmed with dozens of attendees who were smiling and, also, barking.
Aflac had already partnered with Alabama coach Nick Saban as the face of its college football commercial endeavors for two seasons when Knutson and his team presented options of expanding to former chief brand officer Shannon Watkins. A list of coaches and personalities were offered, but Watkins heard Sanders and heard enough. In January 2021, Aflac approached Sanders.
“Deion was very interested in being put on the same stage as Nick Saban,” Knutson said. “He felt like he wasn’t always getting the respect from people in college football, be it media, fans, you name it. It benefits him from the recruiting standpoint being on the same stage as Nick Saban.”
In the years since, Sanders and Saban have spent 12-hour days together filming — Sanders finding himself in an Aflac blue jumpsuit next to Saban while a computer-generated duck in a No. 21 jersey high-steps.
No one knows how the aggressive build at Colorado will turn out. Sanders’ attempt to change the sport doesn’t sit well with the establishment. But that doesn’t matter to him.
He will continue to be cutthroat where he sees fit. He will be must-see TV, at the very least, throughout year one of this risky approach. That is Prime Time in the football arena.
Back on the stage in Minneapolis in late April, Coach Prime told the audience: “If you ain’t living, you’re dying.”
“Prime is always doing everything at 100 miles per hour or at an 11 out of 10, or whatever you want to call it,” Knutson said. “He does not waste a moment.”
The moderator let Sanders go off script.
“Deion was preaching,” Knutson said. “It felt like church.”
(Illustration: Eammon Dalton / The Athletic; photo: Andy Cross / Media News Group / The Denver Post via Getty Images)