(*The NFLPA is a proud partner of Front Office Sports)
2019 marked the 25th anniversary of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) Rookie Premiere. 40 rookies from this year’s draft class convened in Los Angeles to not only show the world what they look like in the uniforms of their new teams for the first time, but also to connect directly with several of the NFLPA’s major licensees and sponsors.
“I think the most important part of the Rookie Premiere for the players is understanding how important it is to fulfill your obligations,” says Karen Austin, NFLPA assistant vice president of licensing. “This event gives them an opportunity to sit down and have that face time with representatives from our partners like Panini, understand that everything is tied to a particular schedule and, most importantly, tied to the consumer and the fans. We want to deliver on every promise that we’ve made in terms to them as well as the partners so we want to make sure that the players understand that.”
Panini America produces 36 different NFL products every year that are priced between 99 cents and $1,500. The trading card and collectible manufacturer has been the presenting sponsor of the Rookie Premiere for the last five years and helps identify the 40 players that are invited to the event.
The brand does their part to prepare rookies for the side of their career that will take place off of the field. The newly uniformed rookies participate in a photo shoot, do voice overs and other content capture exercises for commercials as well as for social content and their rookie trading cards. Content captured at the event can then be used over the course of the year, allowing Panini to get a jump on the upcoming season.
“It’s really important for us to be able to interact with these players face-to-face, and have them understand how important they are to our business,” says Jason Howarth, vice president of marketing at Panini America. “It can get difficult when we’re sending players products to sign entirely through the mail and it can sometimes lead to products getting delayed. What the NFLPA Rookie Premiere does for us is give us enough facetime to grab as many signatures as we possibly can from the guys over a period of time on cards and other memorabilia. If we were to wait until these guys stepped onto the field to get photos or signatures, we’ll have missed half of the NFL season by the time those products can get released.”
Panini also had 20 of the players involved in the photo shoot tweet out their digital rookie card within the first 24 hours. Those posts received 800,000 retweets and had 376,000 engagements.
“It was a long process signing all those trading cards, but it was definitely fun being out there,” says Baltimore Ravens’ rookie running back Justice Hill. “Panini was really helpful with the whole process and it was a great experience working with them.”
Several other partners are also incorporated into the event to introduce them to the players and vice versa. NFLPA Vice President of Group Licensing and Partner Services Gina Scott and her team look closely at each partner to make sure that they make sense for the weekend and will enhance the experience of the players.
“We’re very selective when we talk to our partners and they want to incorporate their product into the event,” Scott says. “We really put it through a fine-tooth comb because we also want to make sure that it’s going to compliment what the players are going through and it’s also going to fit within the structure of the weekend. It’s very critical that we take advantage of those two and a half, three days that we have and everything is tight as we plan it to be.”
While the content creation side of the event is important, the rookies themselves seem to genuinely enjoy the ability to connect and network with each other as well as the partners and members of the media. Any sports professional can attest that one of the most important aspects of succeeding is having a strong network. This event is just one way that the NFLPA prepares young athletes for what they will experience as professional athletes.
“Just being able to engage with the media gets you ready for all the stuff that you endure throughout the year,” Hill says. “Personally, my favorite part was just getting to see all the other rookies for the first time after we all found out where we would be playing. It was definitely a good event and it was a fun time.”