Photo by Kevin Koski
EXECUTIVES & ENTREPRENEURS ENDORSEMENTS

The Businesses Behind the NFLPA Rookie Premiere

From Panini America and Dapper Labs to Fanatics and EA Sports, Boardroom gets to know the brand partners who had a chance to get in the door early with the 2022 NFL rookie class.

With 42 of the NFL’s newest players NFLPA inviting over 20 companies to Los Angeles for its Rookie Premiere event, the brands are eager to meet some of the league’s newest players and begin foraging relationships. 

The hope in the three-day process is that brands and players will meet their match. Steve Scebelo, the President of NFL Players Inc., explained how pro football’s players union selects the companies that are ultimately involved.

“This event starts with Panini. It was initially formed so they have content and images to put on cards before the season is in place,” he told Boardroom. “Trading cards are front and center, so then everything else is built around it. There is a finite amount of time. There are some foundational partners that we know are going to come back every year” — specifically, Fanatics and EA Sports — “[but] there are really a limited number of opportunities for others.”

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“So then we go by scale and size and the level of commitment for the partners that are coming in [and] what they are going to spend in terms of marketing dollars with the players and we open up the opportunity,“ Scebelo said.

Panini America, which serves as the Rookie Premiere’s presenting partner, doesn’t take this time for granted. Players are required to sign a minimum of 5,000 trading cards during the three-day event period, but being the presenting partner also comes with one big, additional benefit: the company has a say in which players get to attend the Rookie Premiere. 

“The Rookie Premiere is our most important event of the entire year,” said Jason Howarth, Panini’s Vice President of Marketing. “It sets the table for all of our NFL trading card products, so we are working as the collegiate season comes to an end to identify those players that are going to move on to the NFL Draft.”

Photo by Kevin Koski

“We start working with them and getting them under contract and then once they are drafted we put together a list of the top 40 players that we think are going to be the most sought out products, and then we invite them out here to the Rookie Premiere to sign trading cards and capture content,” Howarth said.

Other Rookie Premiere veteran brands like Fanatics and EA Sports also enter with some established savvy regarding how best to get their content goals accomplished. Players aren’t introduced to their first NFL jerseys until a big reveal Friday night, so while they’re rotating from station to station on Thursday, the Fanatics team takes pictures of each rookie in company apparel and then photo-edits their future jersey onto them immediately afterward.

One of the longest-running NFLPA licensees on the block, EA Sports is typically one of the most popular brands on-site. With no college football video games released to the public in nine years, players have had to make it all the way to the NFL in order to see themselves for the first time in EA’s Madden franchise. This year, each player that entered EA’s station brought an added touch of nervous energy with them, as they were force to take on a very personal task: attempting to guess their ratings for the upcoming version of the game.

“It’s a great opportunity for Madden NFL to be back on-site at NFLPA Rookie Premiere face-to-face and capturing content with players,” EA Sports said in an official statement. “Rookies are always excited by their first appearance in the game, and to see what their ratings will be, and it’s awesome to be able to tease that in person with them again.”

Another key figure lighting up the room (and basically every other one he enters) was Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson, who aids the Madden team by serving as its “Ratings Adjuster.” Throughout the NFL season, the former Bengals Pro Bowl wideout drops videos highlighting specific players who receive ratings bumps week to week.

In addition to the players themselves, several of the participating companies are first-timers at the Rookie Premiere. One of those is StatusPRO, a sports tech and gaming company currently producing the league’s first officially licensed virtual reality video game. The brand quickly became host to one of the event’s most lively and competitive rooms as players filed in to try out an early build of the company’s upcoming VR-drive football game, NFL PRO ERA

Most rookies who put on the headset were already gamers, but StatusPRO’s game was the first time they had played a football game powered by VR. Some succeeded with flying colors as they threw to open receivers and avoided the pass rush while others held onto the ball too long and received a bright red flash to signal that they had been sacked.

The excitement amongst the players and positive feedback is something StatusPRO’s founders Andrew “Hawk” Hawkins and Troy Jones have been waiting to hear for a long time.

“This is the young guys’ first taste into what the business side of all of this looks like and for us as a company, it’s really dope to hear what these guys have to say,” Hawkins said in an interview. “I feel like the most raw reaction you can get is from an athlete who is a rookie, so to see them get very transparent and candid is dope for us because there are not a lot of opportunities to get this many guys in a single setting in the NFL that are going around servicing all these companies.” 

Added Jones: “This is our rookie season too; new game, new title, new technology. So to be able to put [a VR headset] on the rookies’ heads and give organic feedback on what they think about our title and virtual reality is literally everything to us.”

Photo by Kevin Koski

Dapper Labs, the technology company behind the Flow blockchain that powers NFT communities like NBA Top Shot and CryptoKitties, was another debutante at the 2022 Rookie Premiere. Their appearance follows an exclusive announcement in September of 2021 alongside the NFL and NFLPA to produce NFT highlight Moments for their emerging NFL All Day platform.

“There is a movement with these younger players so it’s important for us to bring the NFL fans close to the game throughout the entire year. In between draft and minicamp, Rookie Premiere allows us to capture content to bring fans closer to the rising talent in the league,” said Juan De Jesus, Dapper Labs’ Vice President of Sports Partnerships. “On the other hand, it also enables us to get players up to speed on NFL All Day. Many athletes are increasingly crypto-curious. We listen to them, learn from them, and share our insights.”

Outside of Panini, Fanatics, EA Sports, StatusPRO, and Dapper Labs, other companies who set up shop in the venue were Sleep Number, élevée and FedEx. Other companies that were a part of the event were Oakley, Gatorade, Funko, Rock ‘Em Socks and Anheuser-Busch.

Photo by Kevin Koski

Each business Boardroom spoke with expressed gratitude over the opportunity to get out in front of the 2022 NFL rookie class early and connect some faces to names. The Rookie Premiere is a sprint from start to finish, but some of the relationships forged over these three days in LA have a chance to constitute the start of something as lasting as it is lucrative.

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