By Barry Janoff
May 13, 2013: The NFL is a $10 billion business, and commissioner Roger Goodell said he wants the league to become a $25 billion business by 2025.
Which means that young stars such as Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Albert Morris and Colin Kaepernick will play a big role in that growth over the next decade. It also means that rookies such as Geno Smith, Manti Te'o, Matt Barkley, E.J. Manuel, Eric Fisher, Tyrann Mathieu and Luke Joeckel have to hit the ground running when it comes to understanding not only the play books but the business of pro football.
Some 40 rookies will be together in Los Angeles this week at the NFL Players Assn. Rookie Premiere. Hosted by NFL Players Inc., which is the marketing and licensing division of NFLPA, the four-day event is where the league's incoming players will participate in activities and seminars to learn about the "business of football." The first three days, being held in the Lowes Hollywood Hotel May 15-17, include one-on-ones with NFL Players Inc. marketing and media partners, sponsors and licensees; and attending business seminars.
Marketing partners that will activate during the event include Topps, Panini America, Pepsi NEXT, Nike, EA Sports, Fandeavor, FedEx, SB Nation, TheraPearl and Élevée. Other NFL partners, including McDonald's, will use the event to gauge the value of participating in future NFLPA Rookie Premieres.
On May 18, the rookies will head to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena to take their first official photos and signing autographs for NFL-partner trading card companies Topps and Panini (and its Score division).
NYSportsJournalism spoke with Keith Gordon, who has been president of NFL Players Inc. since 2009, about the challenges, advantages and marketing potential of being a rookie in the NFL.
NYSportsJournalism.com: What do you see as the biggest challenges facing NFL rookies?
Keith Gordon: The Rookie Premiere is the first time we talk to a late group of rookies, this year it will be 40 players about the fact that, even though they have realized a childhood dream of playing in the NFL, they're about to be hit in the face with the biggest reality of all: This is a business. Each player is one component of a very lucrative, $10 billion business. And according to commissioner Roger Goodell, he wants to build the NFL to a $25 billion business by 2025. They have an aggressive plan to do that. And it doesn't happen when you don't run a business like a business. So it's part of our job to show these rookies that, even though they are playing a game them love, they are part of a business. We explain to them that the reality of this could come after their first injury, or the first time they get cut by a team or they are in a salary dispute. We want to stress to them the difference between having a job as player in the NFL and having a career as an NFL player.
NYSJ: How important is the Rookie Premiere to the players?
KG: We started to formerly do this in 1995. But it really stated as a photo shoot for the trading card companies in 1993. NFL Players Inc. was formed in 1994. Because rookie cards were driving the business, the companies needed to get rookie cards out into the market as soon as they could after the NFL Draft, to get the cards out there into packs for collectors and fans to get them. What we've done since then is to turn a one- or two-day photo shoot into a four-day event during which we've compressed the photo shoot into one day (this year it will be May 18 in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena) and use the rest of the time for orientation meetings, programs that explain the NFLPA and what it means to join a union. DeMaurice Smith, our executive director, will be present on the first day. Then we go into sessions where we talk to players about the business of football. We talk to them, essentially, about their rights as a player and how the union will fight for them.
NYSJ: How have you dealt the the rise of social media and the access that players have to Twitter or Facebook to express themselves?
KG: Our concern is not on how [what they say via social media] would reflect on the league but how it would reflect on the individual and on the individual's marketability. We do have media training, and people from our Player Services department discuss examples of from previous years of players who have done everything from being arrested for DUI to making off-color comments or sending pictures during the emotion of a moment that should not have gone public. So we work with them to make sure they understand that every time they do something like that, it can have a negative impact on them and on their value. At the Rookie Premiere, we have players speak with the executives from companies, with the CMOs and marketing vps. And we have these executives talk about what type of player makes the best spokesman and also what are the detriments that would prevent a company from signing a player to a deal. If they hear that from us, it is one thing. But we have found that it makes a huge impact when they hear it directly from a company that could be signing their endorsement checks.
NYSJ: What roles do the sponsors have during the Rookie Premiere?
KG: As part of the message about having a career as an NFL player, we set up one-on-one sessions with companies, ewe have engagement opportunities between players, sponsors and players and licensees and players and media. We have NFL partners come in that might not be activating at the Rookie Premiere so that they can gauge the importance to them of being a future Rookie Premieres. McDonald's, for example, will be there to look at the property to see how they might benefit from it. We want to provide a lot of different opportunities for players to engage with partners.
NYSJ: What are the biggest things that players and companies get out of these opportunities?
KG: Activating sponsors are able to get video and photo content, autographs for memorabilia, and other activation potentials. But perhaps even more important, the sponsors and licensees there want to understand if these young, hungry guys who have not experienced the marketing or business side like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III did, might at some point be able to represent their brand. You have to remember that many of these companies have invested millions into their partnership with the NFL, and they want to know if their investment with a particular player would be worth it to them, or would be a good fit to their target demographics. From the players' side, we give them the opportunity to see how these companies work, what they are saying through their corporate and marketing messages, which audiences they are trying to reach with their goods, products or services.
NYSJ: Would we see deals between players and companies signed during Rookie Premiere?
KG: It's not necessarily a time when deals are signed. But if you look back over the years, it is a time where a lot of relationships have started. As an example, when Mark Sanchez was at the Rookie Premiere (in 2009), his marketing rep already had conversations with several companies. At that time, Pepsi was looking to form player relationships to support their Rookie of the Year platform. So Pepsi and Mark's rep began to talk, and soon after it turned into a national deal in which Mark became the face for Pepsi. You will also see a lot of local deals begin to form, where a player drafted by a team begins to form a relationship with the local division of a national sponsor.
"We want these guys to understand how short their NFL lifespan could be. They have to understand how they are part of a business . . . They have to take advantage of all the opportunities being offered to them."
NYSJ: How involved is NFL Players Inc. involved in these deals?
KG: NFL Players Inc. is the for-profit licensing and marketing subsidiary of the NFLPA. We oversee group player licensing rights, so that means six or more players being used in one marketing campaign. So in the soft drink category where Pepsi is a partner, if Coke wanted to use NFL players, they could sign up to five players. But when they sign a sixth, they would be in violation unless they were a partner of NFL Players Inc. The same would be true for a national company using players in local markets. If they have one player in five different markets, they are okay to do so. But if they go for a sixth, they would need to have a deal with NFL Players Inc. On the flip side, because Pepsi wants to do a number of national deals as well as local deals — I believe they currently have separate deals with 14 of the NFL's 32 teams — they would use group player rights for their local deals. It's convenient for companies that want to use six or more players, and it's also a system of checks-and-balances because it prevents a competitor from creating an association that isn't there.
NYSJ: Are players coming into the league more polished and with more media and business savvy then before?
KG: One of the realities we deal with is that every year a new group of 300 players come into the league, and every year we lose 300 guys through retirement. For us, it's a matter of constantly re-educating another group of players, and making sure that the education of the previous group of players never stops. We have a network of what we call 'player advocates.They are usually former players, and in some cases player representatives inside the locker room. They are out there not only talking to players in the NFL, but they are also talking to people at the college level, trying to develop a relationship with a lot of these guys, who we really do envision are future members of the NFLPA. We try to connect with them early, even, in some cases as early as high school if they appear to be that promising. These are all efforts for us to reach our membership ahead of time and make sure they have the skills necessary to perform at not only the highest level physically but, more importantly, mentally.
NYSJ: How has the NFLPA dealt with the fact that the NFL has moved into more parts of the calendar beyond the season, with the Scouting Combine, NFL Draft and rookie orientation camps taking up big chunks of time between the Super Bowl and NFL training camps?
KG: The slowest time for us is during the season. One of the main reasons is that the players are busy with their jobs. For us, the busiest time is January through the end of May. We have a number of event at which we want to have a substantial presence: The Collegiate Bowl, the Pro Bowl, we have a number of events surrounding the Super Bowl, then we get ready for the Scouting Combine. We have a players' board of director's meeting in March. We do an event the night before the NFL Draft in New York. We do the Draft. Then we do Rookie Premiere. And after that we are able to catch our breath a little. There is no shortage of activities. One of the most important things for us, and really from both sides, from a business perspective, if we don't know more about the players than anybody else, we can't do our job. There is a reason why my wife puts up with me having to be on the road so much. Any time we have an opportunity to be with the players — the NFL Draft, the Pro Bowl, at Super Bowl, the Scouting Combine — we want them to see a face that they know.
NYSJ: How important is that?
KG: In an environment where people change every year on the NFL side, the constant is always seeing that familiar face at NFLPA and Players Inc. and knowing that these guys are here to make sure that they feel comfortable, that they're safe. And, again, every engagement, every opportunity is a chance for us to know more about our players. So that when our partners are asking for someone who can meet their marketing needs, we can immediately identify a group of players who we need to consider, and also identify a group of players who would not meet those particular needs.
NYSJ: With the unique aspect of Super Bowl XLVIII in MetLife Stadium and its close proximity to New York, have you been getting more interest in using NFL players for marketing than past Super Bowls?
KG: Absolutely. The majority of interest we have seen to this point revolves around the ability of marketers to conduct business in New York and reward their key customers. Without giving away specific details, it could be a brand that is based in New York or has distributors in New York and that's their most successful market. So they want to look at the game Super Bowl as an opportunity not only to entertain and reward their clients but they also want to look at player engagement opportunities, which is where we do a lot of business during the Super Bowl. We create customized hospitality events, were someone could come in a host 200 of their top clients and ask to have five NFL players come in and speak to them. Mingle with advertisers. Sign autographs. Tell a few stories. And the next think you know, it's the best experience these guys have ever had. We've also done things that are a bit more built out. We've done Fantasy Fitness Camps where a guy and his son can be catching footballs thrown by an NFL quarterback. Really cool things that support what our partners want.
NYSJ: If NFLPA and NFL Players Inc. had a business mantra, what would it be?
KG: Our belief is that every business problem has a possible NFL player solution. So when we approach partners, whether it's through Rookie Premiere or if its someone new looking to form a relationship with the NFL and NFLPA and looking to use players, it's important for us to fully understand what their plan is and to understand what their problem is before we even throw out the first recommendation.
NYSJ: Ambush marketing is a big problem for organizations and leagues that are trying to protect themselves and their partners, which pay a lot of money for marketing rights. How big a problem is it for the NFL and how involved is the NFLPA in guarding against it?
KG: There are things that can cost players and the NFL a lot of money. We are constantly on the lookout for counterfeiting or a scam of the week. We are very aware of those things. And we work in concert with the NFL to try to prevent and stop those things from happening.
NYSJ: How would you describe the relationship between the NFL and commissioner Goodell and the NFLPA?
KG: Fortunately, from my perspective, I'm able to stay out of the majority of labor issues. [Laughs.] The best way to think about the relationship is that the NFL is that the NFL is management and the NFLPA is labor. On the business side, NFL Players Inc. has a relationship with the NFL that dates back to 2003. We've been business partners ever since. We have an arrangement where they have exclusive sponsorship rights from us. They can then pass those through to their official sponsors. That enables them to sign deals with sponsors in which it's a one-stop shop for player rights. And in exchange, we are well compensated. But there is also a non-compete. So in the particular case of sponsorships, it actually benefits both parties more to have a relationship and a partnership to build that category.
NYSJ: How would you describe this year's group of rookies?
KG: They seem like a pretty cool bunch of guys. What I always tell people is don't let any of the individuals in the draft class fool you. For every Robert Griffin III and Andrew Luck, there's always a Russell Wilson, a Colin Kaepernick or an Alfred Morris. Those are the guys you want to pay attention to. Not just because of what they do on the field. It's the overall perspective. It's how they handle themselves. it's how interested they are in the programs that you have. It's how well and how genuinely they connect with the partners.
NYSJ: We've heard about Geno Smith, Manti T'eo, Matt Barkley, Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel. Do you have any under-the radar guys coming in?
KG: There's a player from North Carolina, Giovani Bernard (2nd round No. 37 overall to the Cincinnati Bengals). I had an opportunity to speak with him at the NFL Draft, and several times since. He's a really good kid with a great head on his shoulders. He's very grounded. I wouldn't be surprised if he's one of the next breakout running backs in the NFL next season.
NYSJ: If nothing else, what do you want rookies to understand going into the NFL?
KG: At many positions, the average career for an NFL player could be three and a half years. So we want these guys to understand how short their NFL lifespan could be. But if they do what they should have been doing all along, understanding how they are part of a business and making their life beyond playing in the league a top priority, they can turn that three and a half years into a career. They have to take advantage of all the opportunities being offered to them.
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