(The NFLPA is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)
The NFL Players Association means business. The union represents more than 2,000 active professional football players in the National Football League and has a long history of assuring recognition and representation of players’ interest. That mission was invigorated prior to the 1994 season when the NFLPA formed NFL Players Inc., the union’s for-profit licensing and marketing arm. The first-of-its-kind model allows NFL players to share in a revenue pool that is supplemented by their salaries and funds the work the union performs.
Twenty-five years and $200 million in revenue later, the landscape of professional sports has changed in many ways, with athletes gaining more control and marketing power over their brands and likenesses, but the organization remains dedicated to fighting for the collective group rights of all players. In addition to managing the group player licensing rights of its members, NFL Players Inc. connects partners to the power of players and creates custom business solutions through exclusive group players licensing rights, player marketing strategies, appearances and activations.
Many of today’s pro football stars, however, were born after 1994 and are thus largely unaware of the initial obstacles that retired players and administrators faced when it came to controlling their licensing and marketing rights. For that reason, the NFLPA sees the 25th anniversary of NFL Players Inc. and its sustained success as an opportunity to impart business lessons from the last quarter of a century to the next generation of NFL players and leaders.
NFLPA Chief Operating Officer Teri Smith believes today’s players have grown to understand the work of their union and participate on deeper levels. “The players were progressive before, but I’ve seen them more engaged in their union’s activities in the last ten years or so and taking a bolder or more interactive stand on certain issues,” Smith says of the current attitudes of NFL players. “With respect to labor and their careers, I like to see them more involved and I feel like I’ve been a witness to a pretty big part of history.”
The decision to create NFL Players Inc. centered on two different business opportunities: financial independence and the advent of video games. The dues that every player pays annually to be a member of the NFLPA are actually placed into rainy day funds and not touched for operating expenses for the NFLPA. This is an uncommon practice amongst unions for professional athletes, but it is a measure the organization takes great pride in. On the issue of video games, many of the organization’s leaders foresaw the financial potential of the gaming industry and how the union could tether that potential to the game of football, its players, and the sports industry overall.
“Leadership at the time realized that the best way to take advantage of not only video games but other areas of the business was to create our own wholly owned subsidiary with the sole focus of monetizing the commercial rights of NFL players, and that was NFL Players, Inc.,” says Ahmad Nassar, the president of NFL Players Inc.
The 1990s were a decade of innovation in video gaming. Electronic Arts (EA) Sports secured the first NFLPA license in 1994 for its emerging “Madden” football video games. The license allowed that EA Sports could incorporate the likenesses of all current NFL players in each iteration of the Madden series. Prior to the first Madden NFL game under the official NFLPA license in 1995, EA Sports held only the license to use teams and logos – but not player likenesses. This license is now a part of each new collective bargaining agreement.
EA Sports has always made a point to try to make the video games the most authentic experience possible. This effort has stuck in the minds of many of today’s NFL players, who grew up playing the Madden games and, much like trading cards, looked forward to being included in the games as part of realizing their dream.
“I love working with the NFLPA,” says EA producer Ben Haumiller. “Some of the events that we get to go to with them, like NFLPA Rookie Premiere where we get to show the rookies their initial ratings for the first time in the Madden game. That’s their first interaction with us and that moment is always a blast. I remember a couple of players have said that getting to the NFL didn’t feel real until they realized they were going to be in Madden.”
On the licensing side, the NFLPA via NFL Players Inc., has built one of the top 40 largest licensing programs in the world and has generated consecutive years of record revenue growth. NFL Players Inc. works with more than 75 official licensees, which manufacture products that include video games, trading cards, men’s, women’s and youth game jerseys, t-shirts and hoodies, backpacks, wall decals, pennants, collectible figurines, matted and framed photos, bobbleheads, plush toys, drinkware and pet products, among many others.
Recognized by Fast Company as one of the world’s “Most Innovative Companies” in 2018, the NFLPA also secures licensing opportunities for its players via its groundbreaking athlete-driven OneTeam Collective accelerator. The initiative provides startup businesses the opportunity to leverage the NFLPA’s exclusive group player rights and access to current players for production, activations and endorsements in exchange for equity. OneTeam Collective has 11 companies in its portfolio spanning blockchain, wearables, voice recognition, digital media, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, health and wellness, active gaming and live video streaming.
From the OneTeam Collective, to the union’s content and production company, ACE Media, and now through the work being done through REP Worldwide, the NFLPA’s first-of-its-kind group licensing representation business that puts the expertise of NFL Players Inc. to work for sports properties and athletes. Through this and other practices, the NFLPA has evolved over the years into one of the most progressive b-2-b organizations in modern professional sports. Fans and business partners alike can expect the NFLPA and NFL Players Inc. to spend the next quarter of a century exploring new and innovative ways to help players maximize their group player rights. Look for the NFLPA to continue highlighting the 25th anniversary of NFL Players Inc. through its partners and other activities throughout the year and the upcoming 2019-20 season.