Photo credit: Kevin Koski
ENDORSEMENTS MEDIA

NFLPA Rookie Premiere: The Marketing Matchmaker for Football’s Phenoms

More than 1,000 days had passed since the NFLPA had hosted its signature Rookie Premiere event. Boardroom was there for its triumphant 2022 return.

After a three-year hiatus, the NFLPA Rookie Premiere returned to Los Angeles this weekend, bringing 42 players to the Golden State for three days. The Rookie Premiere provides a group of handpicked players their first access to potential business and marketing opportunities by bringing over 20 of the players union’s enterprise partners to the event.

Panini, the league’s exclusive trading card and collectibles partner, served as the event’s presenting partner. The company also has a loud voice when it comes to selecting which players will attend the event — the criteria to qualify for an invite to the Rookie Premiere concern not just college performance and draft position, but overall demand and marketability.

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With this year’s rookie class primarily focused on trying to get acclimated to a new playbook, the event also serves as an opportunity for Panini to collect signed cards. Players who attend are required to sign a minimum of 5,000 trading cards, but some players choose to go as high as 8,000. To help move along a process that can take several hours, each player was given a custom retro-style Bumpboxx bluetooth speaker to play music while they sign.

Other brands that attended the event included Fanatics, NFL All Day creator Dapper Labs, Madden video game creator EA Sports, StatusPRO, Sleep Number, élevée, FedEx, Oakley, Funko, Rock ‘Em Socks, Oakley, Gatorade, and Anheuser-Busch.

“What’s really unique about Rookie Premiere is having that opportunity to interface with this group of players so early in their career,” said Steve Scebelo, President of NFL Players Inc., the marketing and licensing division for the NFLPA. “What we are able to do here is help them build their platform and foundation by working with some of our key partners right from the start. It is important to get to know these partners because if you do well they will come back to you.”

Photo by Kevin Koski

The event began with an orientation featuring multiple former players and NFLPA executives speaking to the rookie class about what they could expect over these three days. Players then rotated to each of the businesses’ stations to meet brand representatives, take pictures, and plant a seed for building a relationship throughout the weekend and beyond.

Notably, the 2022 NFLPA Rookie Premiere marks the first time in which rising first-year pros could enter this sort of fray with dealmaking experience under the belts due to name, image, and likeness privileges. New Falcons quarterback Desmond Ridder, who earned more than $250,000 from deals with Bose, Candy Digital, Blue Grass Motorsport, and several others during his final year at the University of Cincinnati, is a prime example.

NFLPA representatives noted that they have already seen the mindset of players change in this regard.

“They have a new, heightened awareness,” Scebelo said. “These guys just get it — especially with this class. I haven’t seen anyone asking why they are here. Everyone here has been up-front, engaged, and they are walking around and getting their business done.”

The awareness Scebelo speaks of may come from the work his colleague, Terése Whitehead, the NFLPA’s Vice President of Consumer Products and Strategy, has done in the months leading up to the Rookie Premiere. Whitehead and other PA representatives begin educating the players at the NFL Combine, and the teaching continues after the NFL Draft concludes in April.

“This class was more familiar with group rights than previous classes,” Whitehead said in an on-site interview. “Nobody had any questions. While college NIL has been what it is, it really has given these guys a different perspective of the sport.”

Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell, formerly of the UNC Tar Heels (Photo by Kevin Koski)

As NFLPA Vice President of Partner Services Gina Scott tells it, the ability of collegiate athletes to monetize their NIL rights has keyed a shift in the players union’s strategy, too: “We started to alter our narrative to educate them on how their deal structure may transition from NIL to the pros. We are still under a very different royalty and licensing arrangement. We have a different structure, and investments are so much different. NIL is great, but it is not going to compare to what you may get from a two-hour appearance signing for a partner.”

Scott told Boardroom the energy among the players can more on the subdued side of the spectrum until the evening of the Premiere’s day two, which is home to a much-anticipated jersey reveal. After a long day of business discussions with potential brand partners, it’s time for players and their families, friends, and representatives to gather outside a ballroom awaiting speakers to finish talking so they can rush back into the space and view their jerseys. The uniforms are hidden behind a curtain, but as soon as the curtains open, the event becomes a paparazzi party as players fill the room and begin taking pictures.

After setting their sights on their debut uniforms for the first time, the players actually got to suit up on Saturday at the University of Southern California’s Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. After a group picture, the players again rotated stations to help the attending companies create content centered around them. The day concluded around 4 p.m. local time, with many of the players exhausted from talking, posing for pictures, and enjoying themselves. 

It’s too early to know just what form the relationships forged during the 2022 Rookie Premiere will end up taking in the long haul in terms of sponsorships and dollar figures. But as the weekend came to a close, the NFLPA was quite simply happy to have its pinnacle offseason event back in person after 1,000-plus days without an in-person Rookie Premiere. 

“This event is designed for these players to not only understand the business of football and what we do as their union, but to showcase their personalities to some of these brands that have those budgets to do individual deals,” said Terése Whitehead. “Now, brands are asking if a player is a fit for their company, and players are asking if a brand represents who they are and if they like the brand. This event gives the perfect opportunity for the two sides to figure that out.”

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