Your 70-year-old father might find Cam Newton’s first-down theatrics off-putting and his constant preening disagreeable. But your 7-year-old son or daughter probably has a different opinion.
The Carolina Panthers quarterback not only has accounted for a lot of touchdowns and wins, he’s credited with putting a lot of kids in the stands, too.
Those who watched Carolina’s playoff games last month might have thought the team’s top demographic was a fourth-grader with a cat paw printed on his or her cheek. After nearly every touchdown – the Panthers had nine in two games – the player who scored gave the football to a delirious child in the front row.
Newton, 26, began the tradition two years ago, and his teammates have caught on. Panthers officials say there’s no way to document how many children attend their games, but they say there’s been a huge demand from families looking for end-zone seats at or near the front row.
As a result, Carolina fullback Mike Tolbert said he sees far more kids at Panthers home games than away games.
“That’s all Cam,” Tolbert said. “That’s his personality. He has a joyous personality. He has fun in every aspect of life. Kids respond to positivity, and he’s a very positive person.”
Nickelodeon noticed the same trait. The network has cast the quarterback in his own show – the working title is “I Wanna Be” – in which he’s a child’s sidekick as he or she pursues a dream, whether it’s to become a football player, a fashion designer or a herpetologist.
“He’s a big kid himself,” said Bronwen O’Keefe, senior vice president of development and production at Nickelodeon. “And I think his sense of fun, his sense of adventure, of playfulness, really came through the very first time we met with him.”
Newton shot a pilot segment, set to air in the summer, in which he accompanies a girl who wants to be a Cirque du Soleil performer. At one point, the girl scrambles up to a trapeze.
“Cam goes right up after her and you can see the look on his face – he’s terrified,” O’Keefe said. “But he’s there to champion them and to be their partner through their journeys toward their dream.”
Panthers games inviting to kids
One of the young Panthers fans in the front row recently was 8-year-old Isabella Bottomley, whose parents paid $660 each for their four prime seats. Her mother, Renea Bottomley, said the location was worth the cost when running back Jonathan Stewart gave Isabella – who was wearing a Newton jersey – the ball after scoring the first touchdown in the divisional playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks.
Isabella lit up as if she had received a visit from Santa Claus, and the image was replayed over and over during the telecast.
That’s an uncommon sight in many NFL stadiums. The 49ers, for example, have been beset by bad behavior in recent years, including fights, assaults and a bloody preseason game against the Raiders in 2011 that included two parking lot shootings and resulted in the suspension of the annual summer meeting between the Bay Area teams. Similarly ugly incidents inside and outside other NFL venues have made parents leery of taking their children.
Anecdotally, at least, the Panthers don’t have that problem. Renea Bottomley said the family has been going to Panthers games for five years. Isabella has a 10-year-old brother and they enjoy the pregame events outside the stadium, too.
“I really feel perfectly fine taking my kids there,” Bottomley said in a phone interview. “It’s very inviting for kids.”
Dan Polk, who recently moved to the Charlotte area, took his son, Gabe, 6, to his first NFL game, against the Green Bay Packers this season and admitted feeling apprehensive, partially because his son wanted to wear his Green Bay jersey. But the only fans they heard from approached them because they were curious if it was Gabe’s first NFL game.
“They told him, ‘I remember the first game I went to,’ ” Polk said. “It was honestly a very pleasant experience.”
Newton’s appeal rating is high
It’s easy for kids to cheer for Newton.
When he emerges from the tunnel for pregame introductions, he spreads his arms and pretends he’s an airplane. After a touchdown, he mimics ripping open a button-down shirt the way Clark Kent becomes Superman. He played the NFC championship game in flashy blue cleats with the names of every Panthers teammate inscribed on them.
Newton’s Celebrity DBI – which measures public awareness and impressions of endorsers – is in the same echelon as the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper. Newton’s score is highest among those 13 to 17 years old.
“I think the biggest thing is he gets that he’s playing a game,” said Panthers quarterbacks coach Ken Dorsey, who played for the 49ers for three seasons. “Obviously he gets paid a lot of money to do it and he takes it very seriously. But at the end of the day, if you enjoy what you do, it’s less of a job and more of a joy to play a game. And I think that epitomizes Cam in a lot of ways.”
Of course, the mugging, miming, dancing and showmanship that make Newton so accessible to children and popular with advertisers are what irritate older fans accustomed to more subdued demeanors, especially from quarterbacks.
Newton answered questions about his flashy style – and the fun the Panthers seem to have on the field and on the sideline – in his media sessions Monday and Tuesday.
Asked why he thinks some people have a problem with his celebrations, he said: “I don’t know, but I guess you’ll have to get used to it. Because I don’t plan on changing.”