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NFLPA Announces DRIVEN Program to Boost Diversity in Sports Licensing

The players union will select three “playmakers” for an enrichment program meant to elevate women- and minority-owned businesses in the licensing space.

On Wednesday, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) announced a new business accelerator program to address the diversity gap within the world of sports licensing. The DRIVEN program was developed with input from NFL athlete entrepreneurs, industry specialists, and NFL Players Inc., one of the largest licensors that manages over 75 licensees and generated $2.17 billion in player-product sales last year. 

For the first year, three companies will be selected. Applications will be reviewed by an advisory committee that consists of NFL Players Inc. staff and other strategic partners. The PA will call these three companies “playmakers.”

Playmakers will be a part of a two-year program intended to enhance their businesses by leveraging the NFLPA’s group licensing rights. The program will offer mentorship, research, and development, product creation, marketing support, consultation from partners and athletes, and coaching sessions to help navigate and thrive.

“We started by looking at systemic racism and looking at how we could make a difference. And there is always some way you can make a difference,” said Steve Scebelo, the president of NFL Players Inc., the marketing and licensing arm of the NFLPA, in an interview. “We are a pretty big licensor, rather than doing nothing or accepting the status quo, we came up with this program internally to change the makeup of our licensee base and manufacture products that reach a broader and diverse fan base.”

Currently, the NFLPA’s licensing base for women and minority-led companies is at 14 out of the total 85 partners (16%). Seven of the partners are consumer product licensees: SportsManias, FBF Originals, Driven to Win, Sporting Wallpaper, BeastMode, No Excuses, TiScrubs. The remaining seven are investment or equity partners: WHOOP, Micah, Fan Huddle, StatusPro, Genies, Mayvenn, and Round21.

The players association believes the reason that there are so few women and minority-led companies in this space is what they call “sideline culture,” the ingrained systemic, inequitable reality experienced by business leaders who are people of color, women, or individuals of underrepresented groups. 

“Sideline culture has been created in a number of different industries with a lack of diversity, lack of products available made by women and other diverse entrepreneurs,” Terése Whitehead, the NFLPA’s vice president of consumer marketing and strategy said in an interview. “The access for some of these individuals isn’t the same. There is no equitable access for these companies that are trying to get into the industry. 

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“We want to help to build a better, stronger, and more inclusive network not only across licensing, but for these entrepreneurs that have amazing products but haven’t been given the resources, the tools, and the access that many others have.” she said. 

To measure success, the NFLPA has benchmarks to evaluate each one of the Playmakers’ development. The first year of the program is focused on educating and developing each brand on how they can succeed. This will include product design ideation, a marketing plan and a retail strategy. Year two aims at distributing the products and implementing the marketing plans with player activations. 

“I think that NFL players can really bring a unique perspective to brands. It goes beyond having an ad, a social media post or a commercial,” said Brennan Scarlett, a linebacker on the Miami Dolphins in an interview. Scarlett will be one of the five board members reviewing applications. “Athletes are brands as individuals, so we do have a lot of experience on the best way to elevate a campaign or engage a community.”

“Being able to find and tell stories that are truly authentic to the brand, to the player, and to the NFL is the best way to align with the league,” he said. 

In order to qualify for the program, an entrepreneur must be a person of color, a woman, or an individual from an underrepresented group who has an early-stage business. Applications are open today through Dec. 14, 2021, with the first group of entrepreneurs to be selected on NFLPA Pitch Day the week before Super Bowl 56 on February 9, 2022.

About The Author
Randall Williams
Randall Williams
Randall Williams is a Staff Writer covering sports business and music for Boardroom. Before joining the team, he previously worked for Sportico, Andscape and Bloomberg. His byline has also been syndicated in the Boston Globe and Time Magazine. Williams' notable profile features he has written include NFL Executive VP Troy Vincent, Dreamville co-founder Ibrahim Hamad, BMX biker Nigel Sylvester and both Shedeur and Shilo Sanders. Randall, a graduate of "The Real HU" - Hampton University - is most proud of scooping Howard University joining Jordan Brand nearly three months before the official announcement.