Forty-one of the National Football League’s best rookie players are on their feet in a ballroom at the JW Marriott Los Angeles hotel. It?s been a month since the draft, when they learned where they would be working for their first jobs out of college. The regular season doesn?t begin until September, but teams have already begun training. These players?the most celebrated of their draft class, including the two quarterbacks selected first and second, Jameis Winston of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Marcus Mariota of the Tennessee Titans?have been excused for a training camp of a different kind: a four-day introduction to the business of football.?
Former NFL linebacker Don Davis, now player advocate for the NFL Players Association, stands at the front of the room to deliver a pep talk.?
?So we are a what?? he asks.
?Family,? the players reply on cue and in unison.
?And we are here on what??
?And the one thing that businesses do???
The NFLPA Rookie Premiere, as the annual gathering is known, began as a photo shoot in 1993. Upper Deck, the trading card maker, wanted images of newly drafted players, in uniform and on a field, to use on cards printed before the season began. With the help of the union, the company gathered about a dozen players in Los Angeles. The following year the union established a for-profit subsidiary, NFL Players Inc. (NFLPI), to sell group marketing rights for players. The union and its new sales wing decided to turn the preseason photo op into an event to showcase its newest players?and to educate them about moneymaking opportunities off the field. The first official Rookie Premiere came a year later, in 1995.
Any company that wants to use the names, likenesses, numbers, or signatures of six or more NFL players in its product or ads has to go through NFLPI. A player?s agent can line up individual deals with any brand, but once that brand signs more than five players, it needs group rights as well. The NFL and its owners control the rights to team names, logos, and uniforms. Leaguewide sponsors such as FedEx and PepsiCo get group rights to both players and teams through an agreement between the NFL and the union. Licensees, such as EA Sports and its popular Madden NFL video game, buy player and league rights separately.
NFLPI logged $145?million in revenue last year from about 30 sponsors and 80 licensees, says President Ahmad Nassar. The total is up nearly 50?percent from six years ago, when Nassar arrived. That?s still puny next to the league?s $12?billion in annual revenue, mostly from sales of TV rights. NFLPI aims to grow by pitching itself to marketers as a one-stop shop for players. The Rookie Premiere is the first chance for companies to get access to the newest crop of potential stars in one place.?
Rookies practice gotcha questions: ?Would you have a problem playing with a gay teammate??
First, though, the union spends a morning building solidarity and advising the rookies on how not to blow their chance to rake endorsement dollars. ?I want everyone in this room to get more out of this business than this business gets out of them,? DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, tells them during his opening remarks. Davis, during his pep talk, asks the players to be professional, to show up on time, sign what they are asked to sign, and do what they are asked to do. He tells them the story of a player from the year before who had to be roused, ?buck naked, laid out, sprawled out,? from his bed. ?The last dude we had to do this for was JaMarcus Russell,? he tells them, invoking the name of the famous Raiders quarterback bust, the top pick of the 2007 draft who washed out of the league after three seasons.
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