Game Changers: NFL Players Association Fetes 60 Years 2

An exclusive look at how theNational Football LeaguePlayers Association hasevolved and expanded itsinitiatives and importancefrom the core legalrepresentation of its playersto their individual andcollective business interestsincluding marketing,sponsorships and brandlicensing.

April 6, 2018

14 Min Read

Steven Scebelo, vice president, licensing and business development, NFL Players Inc.; Todd Gurley, running back, Los Angeles Rams; and Ahmad Nassar, president, NFL Players Inc. Photo by Kevin Koski

As the National Football League Players Association teams up to celebrate its 60th anniversary amidst the backdrop of the 50th annual Super Bowl extravaganza, the focus remains as simple as it was when it was founded in 1956 and the future is as promising as ever.

While the mantra to represent the best interests of its players hasn't wavered, those best interests of the mid-1950s have evolved from the basics of clean uniforms and safe equipment to include business development such as content, technology, social media and innovative brand extensions.

"Player leadership is at the center of our history. Our union has grown stronger over the past six decades because there is a belief that the sacrifices made today will benefit those who come tomorrow," says DeMaurice Smith, executive director, NFLPA. "For 60 years, we have done what every union in America has done–fought for workers' rights, sought improvements to our working conditions, protected our fair share of wages and advanced the health and safety of NFL players."

Smith maintains, however, that the history of the NFLPA is so much more than that, and it's evident in a multitude of new initiatives that have afforded players more benefits and opportunities during and after their respective football careers.

"We have innovated how we negotiate and administer benefits, improved the many ways we provide services and generated millions in revenues to support our members," emphasizes Smith, who was elected unanimously by a board of active player representatives in March 2009, succeeding Gene Upshaw, who held the post since the early 1980s. The late Upshaw, who passed away in 2008, is credited with reorganizing the association, getting the players more involved and advocating the business aspects.

"In NFL Players Inc., we have the revenue generating engine that drives our union and allows us to operate our organization without using the dues of our members. That type of innovation gives players more opportunities than ever before to explore things they want to do off-the-field," Smith adds.

Over the past several years, a major emphasis has been placed on NFL Players Inc., the licensing and marketing arm of the group, which was established in 1994, and the inherent opportunities it creates for its players. In addition to the core representation of legal, labor and health issues, there is a prime time game plan to aggressively expand its business in licensing and establish the brand potential of its players both during and after their football careers.

It's not only about selling the jersey of the most popular players, but also cultivating a brand business that drills down to a player's relationship and popularity on a local and personal level. In addition, NFL Players Inc. continues to develop new and innovative ways to connect its players with fans in ways that were not even possible throughout much of the association's early years.

"When we look back at the NFLPA, which was formed in the pre-Super Bowl era, the players wanted and needed clean socks and clean jocks; they had to do their own laundry, and they all had separate jobs outside of football, because playing football was nowhere near a full-time job for them to support their families," recalls Ahmad Nassar, president, NFL Players Inc., who joined the organization in 2009 and was named to his current position in February 2015. "When we fast forward to where we are today, it's astonishing how much the sport, the association and the business side has grown in that time frame."

DeMaurice Smith, executive director, NFLPA

For NFL Players Inc., the business has continued to grow significantly. According to the exclusive Top 150 Global Licensors report, which is published annually by License! Global magazine, NFL Players Inc. reported $1.34 billion in retail sales of licensed merchandise worldwide in 2014, ranking No. 46 overall. And according to Nassar, the goal is to double in size over the next several years.

The point that is reflective of NFL Players Inc.'s importance to the players and to its potential is that from the beginning the leaders of the players association viewed "the commercial rights as their birthright," says Nassar.

"We need to protect them, we need to monetize them and we need to grow them," he says. "Those rights are critical and empowering for everyone who works for the organization to focus on. We want players to get more out of the sport of football than the sport gets out of them."

And that same mind set and mantra is applicable to the business side of football.

"We want players to work with sponsors and with licensees to be featured in products and to have product extensions, but above all else we want players to be able to learn the business for themselves and translate that into personal success," explains Nassar. "We focus on organizational success and collective success, which is our mandate, and we want players to focus on individual success and what players can do to position themselves for life after football."

Says Jared Cook, tight end for the Los Angeles Rams, who was drafted in 2009: "The former players and the people who work for the NFLPA have really just boosted how they represent the NFL and the players. They've done so many things from player safety issues to helping players get exposure and using their likeness and their brand image. It's something that we need as players. And I think that's important to have a relationship as a player as well as a relationship as an ambassador for the NFLPA to speak about all of the positive things they do."

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"I would say the biggest thing about the NFLPA is helping guys after they're done playing," says Shane Vereen, running back for the New York Giants, who was drafted in 2011. "Football is only a short amount of time, and after football you have the rest of your life. It's much more important than what you're doing now, so just to prepare for that, I think, is the best thing the NFLPA offers."

The very first player to be able to leverage his persona and parlay that into national ad campaigns and sponsorships was "Broadway" Joe Namath, who played in the NFL from 1965-1977. Then in the 1980s, a trading card boom and the launch of EA Sports' "Madden" video game series began to change the dynamics of the potential business and licensing opportunities for players.

"We still have players who do the national endorsements such as Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and those opportunities will always be there," explains Nassar. "But the biggest difference is a broader set of opportunities with more regional and local deals for players in smaller markets. Ten years ago, only 150 to 200 players were getting any kind of deal. Now, more than 1,000 players, or half the players in the NFLPA, are getting some individual, customized deal–that's the game changer."

"Just helping players increase their marketability is an important aspect because a lot of players who may be in smaller markets might not get the same chances as players in larger markets," adds Cook. "By giving me opportunities to extend myself, make me better as a person and to get my name out there and my face out there–I feel like they are doing that already, and it's something that's going to get even better as people find out about it as it grows.

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Nassar says that when Smith took over as executive director in early 2009, it was very clear that he saw the NFL Players Inc. as an "under utilized, but critical, asset."

"Smith wanted to do more and help the union succeed by putting it in the best financial position possible and help players succeed, both while they were playing and after to generate as much money for them as we possibly could," says Nassar. "He wanted us to be much more on the cusp of what's to come in the business and where new opportunities may lie."

"Over the past few years, we have been aggressively reaching out to partners in new areas to see how we can adapt the players' IP to their products," adds Steven Scebelo, vice president, licensing and business development, NFL Players Inc.. "Players have become pop culture characters–like super heroes, except that they are real."

One of the first partners that saw a new opportunity was licensee Fathead, according to Scebelo.

"They created a category and allowed the players to be featured in a new way. It reinvented the wall décor category and opened people's eyes to ask what else could we do," he explains.

Scebelo says that the NFL Players Inc.'s overall strategy is best described in one word–connections.

"We are connecting the players with the right partners and licensees that we think are a great fit, and then we are helping those licensees connect their products with their fan base."

"We want to be a consultant, advisor, coach and strategize with our partners and incentivize them," adds Nassar. "We market ourselves to our partners as much more than the licensor of 25 years ago. We want to be a dynamic partner.

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The key initiatives for NFL Players Inc. that Nassar and Scebelo believe will drive growth and opportunities for the players in the future focus on the following:

  • Technology–The ability to create and sell a player t-shirt or other product within 24 to 48 hours drastically reduces the product cycle from 90 to 180 days, thereby enabling instantaneous merchandising based on a particular player performance. Nassar recalls last year when Jonas Gray (then of the New England Patriots, now of the Jacksonville Jaguars) scored four touchdowns during a Sunday night game–Gray barely played the rest of the season, and may not score four touchdowns during the rest of his career, "but for one week, he was all the fans talked about. And that week, to have been able to have related product in the market, would have been a game changer for that one player," Nassar says. Nassar views Fanatics as a tech e-commerce partner versus an old school retailer or apparel partner. "We are getting to the point where a person can go on the website and order a t-shirt that doesn't really exist, click 'buy,' and within 24 hours, they have printed that shirt. Forty-eight hours later it's in the customer's mailbox. That's also a game changer," says Nassar. In addition, Nassar believes that 3D printing will further impact the business and NFL Players Inc. is actively researching the technology and its applications. "Customers will be able to print a Jonas Gray bobble head, for example, or action figure, and the little kid who is watching on Sunday, within a day or two, will be able to play with a figurine. We are looking at a world when technology will completely eliminate inventory risk. I believe that maximized fully and properly–and assuming the technology gets there maybe in few years–that it is something that could double our business."

  • College connection–The ability to maximize a player's popularity tied back not only to the respective college or university that he played for, but also to the local high school and hometown where a strong fan base exists in addition to a current team affiliation. Nassar believes there is a huge opportunity that exists in this arena for various products and sponsorships–there are 300 markets with no NFL team, but that have strong interest in players tied to those markets.

  • Content and ACE Media–The opportunity and focus is to spotlight the players in non-football related content year-round. "It's not about developing a player's network, but pursuing the untapped potential for content the other six days of the week," says Nassar. "Whether it's about recovery, health and safety, training in the off-season, doing an internship or going back to school. We think there are huge opportunities in being able to capture that content and to partner with outlets such as Bleacher Report, "120 Sports," BET Networks and ABC in new ways to generate revenue versus spending money to get this done." For example, NFL Players Inc. worked to bring 10 Pro-Bowl players together on the TV series "Family Feud" and "Take it to the House," in which an NFL player goes looking for a house in a new city. Last September, NFLPA announced the creation of Athlete Content & Entertainment (ACE Media), a new, original content business that will create sports-lifestyle content opportunities for its athletes. "Like all athletes, NFL players are an extraordinary group of people with an incredible range of talents, passions, perspectives and back stories. Many of those stories have flown under the public radar," says Nassar, who is also a member of ACE Media's board of directors. "ACE Media will aim to unlock those stories for diehard and casual fans alike and will reach new audiences as well by casting athletes in a light that allows their off-the-field attributes to amplify and complement their on-field accomplishments."

  • Unique promotions–As part of the launch for EA Sports' "Madden 2015," NFL Players Inc. coordinated a promotion with Uber and EA Sports in which players/brand ambassadors delivered the new video game to customers in Uber cars in the NFL's 32 markets.

  • Education–In December, the NFLPA launched a national educational program with EA Sports and Discovery Education called Madden NFL: Football by the Numbers, which was designed to engage students in grades 5 through 9 in science and math content through an interactive digital learning game. The program kicked-off with a community launch at the Franklin Middle School in Chantilly, Va., and was supported by players from the Washington Redskins including DeSean Jackson, Morgan Moses and Darrel Young, each of whom interacted with students during the two-hour event.

  • Trading cards–Panini America, now the exclusive trading card licensee for the 2016 season, recently launched a college series based on players wearing their respective college jerseys.

  • Consumables–Last month, the NFLPA announced the launch of Big Game Party in a Box, which features Bolthouse Farms products and Chef'd recipes alongside the Minnesota Vikings' Kyle Rudolph and Chad Greenway. The meal kits include planning tips and fun recipes such as Rudolph's bratwurst sandwiches and Greenway's 4-hour pulled pork tacos.

  • Mobile gaming opportunities–NFL Players Inc. recently announced a deal with TinyCo, a mobile game developer and publisher, to launch a Road to the Big Game promotion that allows players of "Family Guy: The Quest for Stuff" to interact with NFL players such as Tom Brady, Richard Sherman and former player Brett Favre. The players also provide voice overs for the game, with other notable players like Cam Newton appearing as characters.

  • New initiatives–Among other new areas that are being developed for 2016 and beyond are data licensing and the ability to market player knowledge and assets, as well as international expansion.

Like one of its league's best coaches who prepares relentlessly for the next match up, the NFLPA has maintained a very consistent game plan for its players over the past six decades and it has successfully expanded its business in ways its early members would not have dreamed possible.

"We are on the cutting edge, we are growing the business and are proud of what we have done, but we are not satisfied with it," says Nassar.

"I believe that our union is headed for even better things in the future. We are proud of the things we have achieved, the gains we have attained, the investments we have made in the areas of medical research through the Harvard Players Health Study and in new business ventures like ACE Media," says Smith. "The NFLPA will support the lives of its members in a meaningful and substantive way for decades to come."

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