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NFLPA Rookie Premiere: Behind the Scenes with Sauce Gardner, Chris Olave, & Malik Willis

Last Updated: May 25, 2022
Boardroom spoke with three of the biggest names from the 2022 NFL Draft as they interacted with potential brand partners in LA — and donned their new jerseys for the first time.

There is only one event that is collectively bargained between the NFL and NFL Players Association that excuses rookies from their teams’ minicamps: the NFLPA Rookie Premiere. Now in its 28th edition, the NFLPA selected 42 rookies (with an assist from trading card brand Panini America) to attend the event in Los Angeles, California for an opportunity to engage with over 20 different companies and work to create content around their growing star power.

Boardroom was granted exclusive access to go behind the scenes of the NFLPA’s most exclusive event. 

For several of these players, this was a first-ever trip to LA. The weather throughout the three-day event was cloudy and the temperature reached no higher than 70 degrees — a bit cooler than the typical LA standard of 75 by this time of year — but the conditions did not stop numerous business partners and NFLPA representatives from warming up to this rising class of players.

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“It’s a blessing to be able to be in the position to have sponsors and people like Panini who want to interact with me,” Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner told Boardroom in an interview. A newly-minted New York Jets cornerback selected fourth overall in this year’s NFL Draft, there’s an argument to be made that Gardner boasts an aura of brand awareness that’s second to none up and down this rookie class. And it’s not just his nickname or his All-American accomplishments, either — as he walked around the complex, the former Cincinnati Bearcat sported his signature diamond-encrusted necklaces that tended to speak for themselves loudly before he had a chance to open his mouth.

The NFLPA Rookie Premiere was originally created so that trading card companies could have rookies sign cards ahead of the season. Over time, it has evolved to include several additional corporate partners, but Panini’s trading cards still go a long way to setting the baseline for the event. Rookies are required to autograph a minimum of 5,000 cards; the process can take several days, but Gardner was the first player to finish his full allotment.

“I was saying when I started, if you ain’t first, you’re last, and I always want to be first in everything, so I made sure I was the first one finished,” he said.

New York Jets CB Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner signing Panini Rated Rookie trading cards (photo by Kevin Koski)
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Notably, Gardner and many of his fellow pro football debutantes entered the NFLPA Rookie Premiere with brand partnership experience that no other class of rookies had the opportunity to have thanks to the NCAA name, image, and likeness revolution that first went into effect last summer. The knowledge that comes from having already negotiated a few business deals afforded them a familiarity with the process that was especially useful during these three days in LA.

New Orleans Saints wide receiver Chris Olave, a former Ohio State Buckeyes standout, can attest to that directly. Back in 2020, Olave changed his jersey number to 2 to brand himself as “CO2.” Nearly 18 months after the switch, he was permitted to monetize CO2 as part of his name, image, and likeness rights.

“The nickname carried me to a different level,” Olave said, explaining to Boardroom that he had five or six NIL deals while in college. “Having a lot of production on the field and making big plays while having a nickname to use off the field when people mention me was key. People want to work with somebody that is well-branded that can uplift a team.”

New Orleans Saints WR Chris Olave (photo by Kevin Koski)

Education regarding money management was another lesson many of these rookies already had in their back pockets thanks to NIL. As Tennessee Titans rookie quarterback Malik Willis told Boardroom of what he learned throughout his final year at Liberty University that served him well entering the Rookie Premiere and his first NFL season:

“Once you make a little money, you learn what actually comes with that money you’re making with things like taxes, being able to do things you’ve never done, and also give back. Understanding what comes with some of these relationships as far as how you go about it is important. NIL helped because you don’t just want money, you’re trying to build relationships with these people and be working with them for a long time,” Willis said.

The new Titan also gave Boardroom his Mount Rushmore of brands he would like to partner with: Call of Duty, EA Sports FC (formerly known as FIFA), Apple, and Dove. Olave chose to leave one of the faces on his mountain empty, but told Boardroom that three brands he loves are Nike, Nesquik, and BodyArmor.

Meanwhile, when Sauce Gardner was asked which companies he would like to work with, he had just two words:

“My playbook.” 

Never to be underrated even in the age of the metaverse, one of the key factors that enables players to maximize their return from marketing deals remains location. For his part, Sauce Gardner is thankful he was drafted to the Jets as opposed to a smaller market — and his summation of the opportunity made all the sense in the world.

“The Big Apple has a whole bunch of companies that have sauce,” Gardner said with a smile. In fact, the young Jet has already been in touch with Frank’s Red Hot, Raising Canes, and Buffalo Wild Wings. “It is the right fit for me. The market is crazy. Before I even touched down in New York, I had people hitting my business and marketing team up.”

As the three players walked around the complex meeting representatives from companies like Dapper Labs and Sleep Number, the emotional tenor was mostly reserved. All of that changed on Friday night, however, when it was time for the big jersey reveal. The trio could not help but stare at their jerseys as if they had just discovered a golden four-leaf clover.

Photo by Kevin Koski

The following day, when players actually had their first chance to suit up in the new looks, a new and lively energy took hold. There was more playfulness in the air as the players laughed, danced, and had their fun at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Festivities concluded once players finish their last activations with the companies in attendance. From there, some players flew out of Los Angeles back to their homes, while others departed on Sunday. As he made his own exit, Malik Willis carried in full force the sort of grateful attitude most of the weekend’s participants came to exhibit.

“It’s such a blessing, we’re in a superposition to be in. We are talking to different companies and people that are willing to invest in what we do on the field and the people that we are off the field. The feeling is overwhelming because understanding how big that is knowing how we have a leg up on a lot of people because of this event is amazing,” he said. 

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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.