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Does a Madden Cover Athlete Really Matter To Sales?

This year, the folks at Electronic Arts let fans decide who was going to be on the Madden '12 cover.

They took one player from each team and have had a vote to get down to the final cover athlete. They're down to the final two and the final two aren't the natural cover athletes.

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Scott Cunningham | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

It's Michael Vick, who obviously has had his image troubles. And Cleveland Browns running back Peyton Hillis, whose picture likely wouldn't be recognized by most casual NFL fans.

So is what Electronic Arts doing risky? Do they risk hurting their potential sales by having an athlete with a past or with a guy in Peyton Hillis who would be their least recognized cover athlete ever?

While much is made of the cover athlete, the truth is that EA doesn't have much to lose.

"What drives gamers to a particular title is that game's review scores, gameplay and feedback from peers," said David Riley of the NPD Group. "While cover art can certainly enhance appeal and awareness, it's hard to fathom that a gamer would drop $60 based solely on what appears on the cover."

Riley said there is no hard research on an cover athlete's ability to better sell a game.

"Great covers help practically sell everything, but can a cover alone sell a video game?" Riley asks. "Sure, some gaming consumers who stumble upon the latest title will be compelled to look the game over based on the cover, but that doesn't mean it's going to drive them to purchase it."

A good control is Tiger Woods PGA Tour franchise. Woods hasn't really become a better spokesman than he was for the game last year, but sales are up for the new game because fans can now play Augusta National.

As for the Vick and Hillis, it's a no brainer.

First, it's worth some money. Sources tell CNBC that the Madden cover spot this year is worth around $125,000, even though it does include some work—about a week full of commitments.

But it's also worth it from an image standpoint for both. For Vick, it's another sign that he is back. For Hillis, it's the first real sign he's in the national marketing conversation.

The cover athlete will be unveiled on April 27 on ESPN2's SportsNation show. The Madden franchise, which is consistently in the top 10 best selling video games of the year, is one of the best selling video games of all time, having grossed more than $1 billion in sales.

Questions? Comments? SportsBiz@cnbc.com