Before Tim Tebow even had a number on the New England Patriots roster, his jersey was selling online at the team’s pro shop for $99.95.
One day after signing the former Heisman Trophy winner as a third-string quarterback, the Pats wasted no time capitalizing on one of the NFL’s most marketable players. They offered fans a chance to preorder Tebow’s replica jersey, which the team said would be shipped whenever he was assigned a number.
Tebow got number 5 late Tuesday morning. The Patriots declined to say how many jerseys they sold on the first day.
Lest there be any doubt that a benchwarmer can jam checkout lines, consider this: Tebow ranked fifth in the league in jersey sales as a Denver Broncos rookie in 2010 and second in 2011 — ahead of Tom Brady both seasons — despite starting less than half of his team’s games during that span. Last year with the New York Jets, Tebow never started and threw only eight passes all season, but still had the 13th best-selling jersey in the NFL.
“There’s no doubt that his Patriots jersey is going to be a big seller,” said Robert Tuchman, who founded the sports marketing firm TSE Sports & Entertainment before starting a travel company in 2011. “There’s something about Tim Tebow that transcends even people who’ve won championships. He’s like some of these modern celebrities who are famous for being famous.”
Tebow’s rise began at the University of Florida, where he played on two national championship teams and became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy, given to the nation’s best collegiate player. Born in the Philippines to missionary parents, he captured fans’ interest with his uncommon biography and record-breaking exploits on the field.
But Tebow has engendered some resentment since he was drafted in the first round in 2010. He became an increasingly polarizing figure during his second season in Denver, when he took over a 1-4 team and led the Broncos to a surprising division title and a first-round playoff win — while frequently kneeling in prayer on the field in a move that became known as “Tebowing.”
Tebow’s statistics were often unimpressive, even in victories, and the Broncos traded him before last season to New York, where he saw little action.
Despite Tebow’s limited professional accomplishments, his reputation as a strong leader, hard worker, and outspoken Christian has made him one of the country’s best-known athletes. His Q Score — the percentage of Americans who recognize him — was 83 last year, putting him in the same echelon as sports icons such as LeBron James.
Tebow’s endorsements include deals with Jockey, Nike, EA Sports, and FRS energy drinks, which together pay him as much as $2 million per year, according to reports.
Popular as he is, Tebow has often been targeted for ridicule by those who root for the Patriots. Tebow’s Broncos played the Pats twice in 2011, including a playoff matchup at Gillette Stadium that New England won in a blowout, 45-10.
Last season, Tebow’s inability to carve out a meaningful role with the Jets offered one more reason for Patriots fans to mock their team’s most hated rival.
Signing with the hometown team isn’t enough for Tebow to win over some Pats fans.
“I wouldn’t buy a [Tebow] jersey,” said Kevin Cohee Jr., 17, of Chestnut Hill, who was shopping at Niketown in Boston on Tuesday. “I hope he’s not too big a distraction because he draws lots of media attention. Instead of being focused on the team and the players getting better, they’ll be focused on all the attention that surrounds him.”
Others appear ready to embrace Tebow — and wear his name on their backs.
“I’ll definitely get a jersey,” said John Bardford, 58, of Worcester. “I know he’s a good player, and he thanks God for every successful touchdown he makes, so I think he sets a good example for people. Wearing his shirt would support him and what he stands for.”Globe correspondent Alyssa Edes contributed to this report. Callum Borchers can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @callumborchers.