Boardroom goes behind the scenes of one of Super Bowl LVII week’s most exclusive events to get acquainted with the NFL Players Association’s latest feast of partners, startups, and more.
Each Monday and Tuesday of Super Bowl week is like the calm before the storm. This year, Monday meant Super Bowl LVII Opening Night, an all-encompassing event at which media can speak with several members of both participating teams over a span of four hours. The Footprint Center, home of the NBA’s Suns and WNBA’s Mercury, is filled to the brim with fans awaiting to see their favorite players. The excitement of these spectators, as well as the media and even the athletes themselves, is not to be denied.
Tuesday, meanwhile, takes the energy to the next level. The ever-iconic Radio Row at the Phoenix Convention Center is not quite jam-packed, but it’s getting awfully close. Nearly all of the tables in sight are filled with journalists and media members prepared to host players, produce talk shows and podcasts, and gladhand with as many high-profile figures from sports and entertainment making their way around the room as possible.
On Wednesday, the frenzy begins. Fans are suddenly swirling around the Convention Center. Radio Row is as busy as a big box store on Black Friday.
Ducked off away from the bustling building however is a much smaller venue. Within it are the people who represent all 1,700-plus active NFL players. They are employees of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), and the week of Super Bowl LVII marks the first time the union is hosting what they’ve called NFLPA House, a three-day open house-style event that Boardroom quickly learned was actually three years in the making.
“The whole idea is that we — including the staff of the NFLPA, NFL Players Inc., the players, and our partners — spend an ordinate amount of time running in between meetings or activations, so we thought we should pick a spot to knock a lot of things out,” says Steve Scebelo, President of NFL Players Inc., in an on-site interview of the union’s evolving approach to Super Bowl week.
By comparison, the atmosphere is marked by a calmer tone than that of other events throughout the week. Music is not blaring. There are no strobe lights. There are hardly any decorations except for signage in various places featuring the NFLPA logo. A dining room features food stations offering a wide variety of offerings like chicken sandwiches (full disclosure: they were horrible), barbeque pulled pork and chicken, mac and cheese, a massive charcuterie stand, and vegan and vegetarian options; such refueling is necessary due to the event consistently featuring at least half of its tables full of attendees discussing business, getting to know each other, or trying to predict outcome of Sunday’s Chiefs-Eagles slugfest.
Really, the environment feels so welcoming that you might be tempted to think that this NFLPA event isn’t strictly private — but look closer. The sight of defensive lineman-sized security guards patrolling the building will surely change even the most skeptical mind.
What cannot be seen in the immediate vicinity, however, are the business partners Scebelo has mentioned. Both EA Sports and Mythical Games are hidden in private rooms capturing content for EA’s Madden video game franchise and Mythical’s NFT-powered game, NFL Rivals. Meanwhile, the exec estimates that across media, sponsors, licensees, and players’ marketing reps, over 100 partners have visited the NFLPA House in a span of three days.
Boardroom speaks with Terése Whitehead, the union’s VP of Consumer Products and Strategy, to learn more about why the NFLPA chooses to open the doors to its partners in the particular way that it does.
“We plan years in advance when we’re going into a Super Bowl or Draft city. A lot of partners don’t have their plans laid out until January, and at that point, venue spaces come at a premium,” she says. “So, when they’re trying to find space to hold their activations, if they haven’t done the same planning, they’re not going to find anything. What we were able to offer was offer a space that can hold meetings and host content creation rooms while also being near a lot of what is happening in downtown Phoenix.”
Planning is indeed everything if the NFLPA House intends to play host to some of the most influential figures in professional football. This year, If you’re here at the right time and in the right place, you can catch DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the union. You may see Sean Sansiveri, General Counsel and Head of Business Affairs for the NFLPA and NFL Players Inc.. And though he wouldn’t admit it himself, Scebelo is a heavyweight name in this business, too. There are also players like Austin Ekeler, Malcolm Jenkins, Kyle Rudolph, and more rolling in and out to provide an extra boost of star power.
At different points throughout these few days, special programming takes the spotlight. Witness NFLPA Pitch Day, for which entrepreneurs present their companies to an authoritative panel of investors and athletes. This is ultimately the most packed event of the week at the House; six company owners are competing to win a package including:
- $25,000 from the NFLPA in marketing services and player activations.
- $25,000 in services from OneTeam Partners, which specializes in group licensing, athlete marketing, and media.
- Consultation and one-year membership from Products of Change, a global educational hub driving sustainable change across consumer product markets and beyond.
- Player marketing strategic consultation from students of the Arizona State University Master of Sports Law & Business sports entrepreneurship class
As for the companies participating in Pitch Day:
- Champions Round, a sports media and consumer tech business focused on Gen Z consumers.
- Culina Health, a personalized tele-nutrition platform powered by registered dietitians.
- For Days, whose mission is to end clothing waste through a recycling and rewards platform.
- LootMogul, an athlete-led sports metaverse that is powered by virtual real estate, training academies, blockchain games, meta shops for athletes, and brands with IRL rewards.
- Noggin Boss, the giant hat company that went viral after Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson sported one in a postgame press conference.
- Puzzle Huddle, which aims to provide a wide selection of jigsaw puzzles that are fun, challenging and rewarding.
Each startup gave a 15-minute presentation that saw them showcase their company in front of judges and a crowd of over 100 people. In the end, Culina Health won the prize package.
Other notable happenings include a health and wellness event on Thursday, Feb. 9 by former Pittsburgh Steelers safety Ryan Mundy, who runs a company called Alkeme Health. Mundy originally reached out to NFLPA Director of Health and Wellness Amber Cargill hoping to partner on a new initiative his company was starting ,and the outreach came with perfect timing, as the union was in the process of planning its own health and wellness day.
“We’ve done activations before but not on this level. This is the Super Bowl week at the NFLPA House, so this was our first foray into big production,” Mundy says in an on-site interview. The ex-NFLer told Boardroom he founded Alkeme Health because when he retired he was dealing with serious issues like anxiety and depression but didn’t know how to help himself despite having the funds to do so.
“I created Alkeme Health so that I can be the change I want to see in the world,” he said.
Friday Night Festivities
To conclude the three-day business extravaganza, the NFLPA hosts its signature party. The physical location of the function is even more secluded than the House itself (though could also be because it’s nighttime and eyesight is not one of my best attributes). Guests need an invite to attend and there is an increased security presence around the entrance.
As you enter, the dimmed room with orange lights scattered around the place that may or may not the risk of giving everyone a tan (occasional camera flashes put that potential concern to rest). The middle of the room includes a large bar with special-edition drinks, with a smaller bar located about 15 yards behind it. On the sides of the room are food tables with delectable bites.
Of all the food that I tried, the beef roast hit the hardest. I think I had five servings.
As you make you make your way around the room, the party is even more star-studded than the NFLPA House. A big figure sits in the back left corner of the room that could be mistaken for an enforcer; it is actually just Calais Campbell, a six-time Pro Bowl offensive lineman and one of the nicest NFL players you could meet. Cam Jordan, possibly one of the league’s most comical personas, is making a couple of younger kids laugh hysterically. Next to him is one of the most dominant running backs to ever play, Adrian Peterson. Another legendary halfback, Jerome Bettis, is taking pictures with fans. Other players stroll around and greet attendees at their leisure.
Outside of about 10 standout NFL players of past and present and a a contingent of fans, the room is filled with familiar faces from the NFLPA House, including brand partners. All told, the shindig marks the end of the NFLPA’s three-day slate of Super Bowl gatherings.
It also marks the beginning of a new season: the offseason.
In the months to come, the PA will continue to fight on the behalf of players on subjects that include field conditions, player safety, instances of alleged collusion between NFL team owners, and other issues that the association may find. But on Friday night, everyone is just focused on having a good time.
The Next Time
Based on what they described as a tremendous success, the NFLPA will host another House and party next year. As VP Terése Whitehead tells Boardroom, the first step in making improvements is receiving feedback from attendees.
“We have so many people here that may see things that I didn’t so we always do a debrief to go through feedback internally. Year one was great, but now we have to figure out where we can improve,” she says. “Every year my goal is to plan further in advance. Behind our Wizard of Oz curtain, you would never know when we start planning things based on how it turns out.”
Scheming plans and finding a location will be vital for next year because distinct challenges lie ahead. Phoenix is a city that has hosted the Super Bowl four times and the city, the league and the players association are familiar with the capital city of Arizona. Next year that won’t be the case. Yes, the NFL has hosted the Pro Bowl and the reimagined Pro Bowl Games in Las Vegas over the last two years, but 2024’s Super Bowl will be a paramount event that few organizations, regardless of the business sector, can match.
To put a bow on things, perhaps Scebelo puts it best:
“From a positive standpoint, everything is more concentrated. You can get where you need to go and probably won’t need a car to do that. The challenge is probably going to be focused and making sure you don’t lose people along the way. We can be pretty insulated here because it’s a quiet space and you can get business done but Vegas is going to be hard. We faced obstacles this time around, too, but we have a team that can go out and get the job done so next year will be even grander.”
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