In a recent webinar Q&A session with Online MS in Sports Analytics and Management Program Director Matt Winkler and NFL Players Association Marketing Manager, John Fitzpatrick, the world of sports entrepreneurship and how it impacts the licensing of sponsoring of players, products, and services is explained.
The following is a partial transcript of the archived presentation, which can be viewed in full here.
Working in Sports Entrepreneurship
Matt Winkler: What’s it like to work in this sector of the sports industry?
John Fitzpatrick: The intersection of business and sports — that's what I love, but it took me awhile to figure that out. I was a broadcast journalism major in college; I thought I wanted to be the next Bob Costas, but I quickly found out that the only things we had in common were that we're about the same height, and we both have nice hair.
My point there is that your career path is not a straight line. It's going to take some turns, and those are opportunities. Those opportunities take you into unexpected places, which led me here to the NFL Players Association (NFLPA). But I would say, overall, it's very exciting; it's challenging, and it can be fun. I think you really got to know what you're getting yourself into — the time commitment, working hard, finding creative solutions, making yourself valuable to the organization. That's all important.
I think what I've tried to do is just always be a lifelong learner — consume everything I can; reading best practices from other sports, other leagues, other companies. Really just trying and learning new skills, particularly analytics, and know how that applies to my day-to-day stuff. So, learning a lot, because I think the joke is that the robots are going to come to take all of our jobs anyway.
Players Inc. Background
Matt Winkler: Can you talk a little bit about what Players Inc. does and get into some of your day-to-day duties?
John Fitzpatrick: The NFL Players Inc. is the for-profit licensing and marketing arm of the NFLPA. We connect businesses to the power of NFL players, and that takes the form of customized business solutions, whether it's through licensing, marketing strategy, or player activations. We're really the revenue driver for the union.
The last three years have been pretty good; revenue is going up. We've been recognized by our industry peers, particularly on the licensing side. I think really what we try and do is continue to push the limits of what a typical licensing program looks like and try to be innovative and really experiment and test.
Our licensed product business is three different categories: apparel, hardlines, and digital. We work with a number of large companies — over 86 — like Fanatics and EA Sports, which makes Madden. Nike, certainly. Panini, which is exclusive in the trading card company.
I work specifically within the marketing department, but it touches licensing and business development. We help the business development team identify areas for growth, and help create marketing collateral to pitch to new companies that potentially want to do business with Players Inc. — that's working with the licensing team. Licensees of the PA have marketing dollars, and we help find creative ways that they can get players involved to promote the businesses.
That's a very important thing for us — getting players involved with the business. We do this through our Player Services division. Their main job, really, is to help facilitate a lot of those talks with the players, to get deals out for player activations.
Sponsor Services works with NFL sponsors that want to plug players into campaigns. It’s all about content play and giving NFL players and athletes from other sports leagues an opportunity to tell their stories. It's a lot of fun.
Matt Winkler: And the player marketing component, I would think, are some of the cooler areas that you work with?
John Fitzpatrick: My role is really to tell the story of NFL Players Inc. — whether that's to business prospects or our current partners. Also to our players, to our membership — and we have over 2,000 current NFL players across the league — all have different interests and passions. So, we want to make sure that we are speaking directly to them so they're informed about what we're doing so we can get them involved.
It's a lot of fun. I like telling our story. We work with the players directly through things like the brand ambassador program, which has been going on for the last couple of years. We've got a brand ambassador from each team — these are players who basically help spread the word about Players Inc., what we're doing, some of the new partnerships that we have in place-- and they spread that word to their teammates in the locker room to get the players informed and excited about what we're doing.
We get players involved in the business — it's very important. They come to our trade shows, they come to our conferences. Tyler Lockett, Tevin Coleman, and a couple others-- they came with us to the Licensing Expo, which is one of our biggest events in terms of drumming up new business. The players were excited to be there to get their hands on the product, to talk to people about what we do. It was exciting for both of us to see that because the players play on Sunday, but then they look out and they see all these different products that our licensees make using their IP. It's exciting for them to be able to talk to some of our business partners.
We hold our players up to a higher regard, and a lot of times these players are just as fun and down to earth as the rest of us. They like shows like The Walking Dead. They'll talk to you about Game of Thrones and things like that. It's a lot of fun to work with the players and to get them involved.
Sports Entrepreneurship & OneTeam Collective Collaboration
Matt Winkler: Can you talk about some of the entrepreneurial areas, and OneTeam Collective?
John Fitzpatrick: OneTeam Collective is the very first athlete-driven business accelerator. The 76ers have one; the Dodgers have one.
As Players Inc. continues to generate more revenue for the players, we have to look outside of traditional licensing and sponsorship. So, with OneCollective, sports technology startups that align with us are able to partner with us to ultimately drive up their business growth.
It's really exciting. You've got a number of great founding partners who work with some of the leading venture capital firms in the country — Kleiner Perkins being one of them. Some other founding partners are the Sports Innovation Lab and Harvard Innovation Lab are the consultant and work with us.
The key thing there when I say it was the first athlete-driven business accelerator, I mean the players are involved. We have an athlete advisory board made up of current and former players who analyze a lot of the applications and talk with us about their own experience and how they use some of the products.
What we're really looking for are a lot of companies who are doing stuff with data analytics, wearable technology, and waist products to make the game safer for all athletes. We've done a lot of great events so far to help promote this. We do pitch days. We held one at the last Super Bowl where we brought in five companies to pitch directly to members of the Athlete Advisory Board to NFLPA staff — two members of some of those VC funds. So, you really get a firsthand look at how entrepreneurship is working — certainly in the tech space.
WHOOP offers a wearable device that helps athletes track their performance, their sleep, and their recovery. When talking about data, this device goes on the wrist and tracks all the information about how players are working out, their sleeping patterns, their recovery, and it really calculates and lets them know how hard they should work out. The next day, it calculates how much recovery they need to be optimal. You'll see more and more of WHOOP around. They have a deal for in-game use by major league baseball teams.
I think the key thing when looking at entrepreneurship, certainly as it relates to licensing, is what is really new and exciting out there. A good example here would be fidget spinners. It seems like a product that came out of nowhere. It's not a high-tech product; it simply just spins around your fingers. But, it was one of the top sellers on Amazon and Alibaba over the last few years. Slice Intelligence — they do e-commerce data — said that spinners accounted for 17 percent of daily online toy sales in the month of May. That's astounding for a product that isn't tech!
So, there's a lot that you can do with sports entrepreneurship; it doesn't have to be technology-focused.
Matt Winkler: When looking at the licensing of those components, there's a lot of new opportunities in the virtual space. Can you talk about those?
John Fitzpatrick: So, you're going to hear more and more about e-sports — it's hard not to go a day in sports without hearing about it. I think a lot of non-gamers or the general public are still trying to figure it out, but I think you'll see a lot of NBA teams and NHL team owners creating their own leagues; creating their own teams. I mean, it really is an emerging industry.
Newzoo, which is a company that covers the e-sports industry, said that there are over 148 million e-sports enthusiasts around the globe. This reaches worldwide, particularly in South Korea, and it's really growing here in the US. The numbers that are involved with e-sports are astounding.
There's a lot of opportunity to make products that people are interested in that could help e-gamers. That could be training programs to help people be better at e-sports, or train them to recognize patterns better. Maybe it's wearables, training programs, guides, or camps. There's also merchandising opportunities with jerseys and T-shirts. I mean, you name it. All those products can also be applied to something like e-sports.
You'll see a lot of different companies getting involved, including traditional companies. Cable companies are getting involved; TBS now has a TV show all about e-sports. I think the key thing about e-sports and why is it catching on is because the viewing experience is totally different.
Oftentimes, folks who watch these competitions, they watched it through streaming sites like Twitch. It's great because viewers can interact directly with the gamers and the gamers can interact directly back with them. It's two-way communication while the games are being played, which you don't typically get in other sports. So, the engagement level of people who follow e-sports is really high, and I think that's really attractive to a lot of companies that want to get into e-sports. Madden, or EA Sports, is a licensee of Players Inc. Oftentimes, when we think of e-sports, we think of these multiplayer online battle games. Madden certainly is a sports game, and they're starting to get into the e-sports arena with a bunch of online tournaments and cash prizes. So, it's exciting to see sports games starting to get into e-sports as well.
Matt Winkler: Can you talk about the rich experience of virtual reality?
John Fitzpatrick: I should talk about both virtual reality and augmented reality. I think augmented reality has already shown how popular it is; think back to Pokemon Go. Nintendo and Niantic Labs put the game out a little over a year ago. I mean, that was great timing with it coming out in the summertime. It dealt with nostalgia from folks my age who may have been familiar with Pokemon. Augmented reality has shown a great experience, because instead of putting on a headset, the world comes to you. I think augmented reality and virtual reality are areas that you're seeing a lot of activity and entrepreneurship in.
A licensee of Players Inc. has actually created the first licensed VR football experience; it's found on the Google Daydream platform from a company called Superstar Games. You can be a quarterback, and it's like you're really in the game. You can see the receivers running routes and you can throw footballs to them. It's really exciting and really cool.
I think you'll see a lot more of this being athlete-driven. By this, I mean that more players and athletes are becoming investors in opportunities like this because not only are they lending their money, but they're also lending their expertise and their know-how. They've grown up with a lot of this stuff and have a lot of passion and understanding for it.
So, you'll see more athletes, like Stephen Curry, LeBron James, and Carmelo Anthony, being investors. We have everyday players like Kelvin Beachum and Russell Okung, who are offensive linemen and are getting involved in virtual and augmented reality.
Player Marketing Campaigns
Matt Winkler: Let’s get into player marketing campaigns.
John Fitzpatrick: We have an ad campaign that serves two different audiences. We have one for licensing so we can get them more aware of or interested in potentially working with NFL players. Then, we have an audience campaign where we want brands that are interested in working with NFL players to use players for their own marketing campaigns.
One of my favorite ads is with Kirk Cousins. If you're a fan of the Redskins, you may remember his famous phrase that he yelled spontaneously after a game, "You like that?" That ad plays off of that and also serves a licensing audience.
There was another ad for the Licensing Expo 2017. This ad was placed in License Global, which is the licensing industry's premier trade publication. The Licensing Expo is a big trade show that takes place annually that we attend. We wanted to make sure that as we were looking through our ad dollars and asking how we can best reach prospects. We know that License Global isn't big, but there was a lot of eyeballs around the trade show, so we wanted to make sure that we covered that. We used a mix of print and online. On licensingexpo.com we had an ad featuring imagery of Kirk and also DeAngelo Williams. It's all about figuring out how best to reach our audience. We need to know if we're getting the best value out of the dollars we spend. We need to make sure we’re getting the right publications at the right time.
Malcolm Jenkins from the Philadelphia Eagles was part of an advertorial that was placed in the SportsBusiness Journal. The SportsBusiness Journal is a publication that everyone in the industry reads, so we wanted to make sure that we're top of mind for a lot of folks in sports marketing or who are reading that magazine. The advertorial talked about how there are over 2,000 current players and how they all have different interests and passions.
There are a lot brands out there that want to work with NFL players, but maybe there's this perception that they're hard to work with, or that everyone wants to work with Tom Brady. Sometimes, the top players may not be the best fit, so then we’re able to recommend a player that closer aligns with the brand's values.
For example, you've got a lineman, John Urschel, who speaks Russian. He's got a degree in computational mathematics, and he also plays chess; it's fascinating stuff. There are brands that want to reach an audience who are interested in things like that. We know a lot about the players and we can place them with the right brands who are interested in working with them.
Also, content is key here. Infographics are big. Images, but certainly video, drive a lot of engagement.
So, overall, it's a lot of the testing and experimentation, but it's fun because you can get creative and figure out how to reach those different audiences.
Choosing Brand Ambassadors
Michael Blaylock: How do you choose players as brand ambassadors? Are players required to go through the NFLPA if they want to represent a brand?
John Fitzpatrick: Oftentimes, players come to us wanting to learn more about getting involved with Players Inc. and wanting to understand how we drive revenue and take on new partnerships. We try and get one player from each team. They're really the spokespeople for our business in communicating to not only to their teammates, but also reaching out for high-touch follow-ups with business prospects, or getting involved in pitch meetings or trade shows. Having their interaction with the business community is extremely valuable.
As for brands wanting to reach out and work directly with players, we try to have an unparalleled access to the players, because oftentimes, we're one of the best places to go to first to try and initiate a lot of those discussions. However, a lot of players do their do their own deals with brands outside of the Player’s Association.
Michael Blaylock: Can you expand on player activations?
John Fitzpatrick: An activation can be a number of different things. It could be something on social media where a player tweets and they're often compensated for it. Or, it could be a retail appearance with a meet-and-greet greet or an autograph signing with some of the store's top customers. It could also be going to an event or a trade show. Or, it can be photo or video shoot that a brand, licensee, or a sponsor wants to shoot.
Data Analytics in Player Marketing
Michael Blaylock: Can you talk about your role and how it relates to analytics? Are there any specific tools that you use?
John Fitzpatrick: I think data analytics and being able to measure and get a sense of what you're doing is really key. There are a number of different tools that we use. I think the goal with all of those tools is trying to get as clear of a picture you can of all the different complex data that is coming in, and getting a sense of what you're trying to do to really help you make a better decision. Spredfast is one of them — it’s for social media tracking, for engagement, conversion, links, or player engagement.
Our sales organization uses a number of Microsoft Office tools — a CRM (customer relationship management) tool being one of them. It really helps our business development team as they're out prospecting and making sure that they're keeping track of other outreach, whether through email or phone calls.
On the ad campaign side, our partner coined a PR agency and they're our immediate partner, Centro. They use a lot of different tools to track how our ads are looking, especially on digital. Digital marketing is the area where you can really track and analyze performance very well. Tools like LinkedIn can tap into and see how messages are resonating. So, we'll test more than one message to see what is getting traction.
So, we’re incorporating different tools more and more into our day-to-day to help us make better decisions about strategy or certain tactics.
Advice to Sports Industry Newcomers
Michael Blaylock: Lastly, what are a couple things that students can do to make themselves the best possible candidate for opportunities in the field?
John Fitzpatrick: Building a network. I think that is key, whether networking at events or conferences, or within your own organization. Making sure you're interacting with everyone, because there's a lot of stuff that you can learn from your fellow co-workers.
Something someone told me to do a long time ago that I still try to do every now and then is if there's a particular industry that you're trying to crack into, go on LinkedIn. Identify 5 to 10 people that you really want to meet and are interested in learning from. Then, figure out how you're connected to them, whether that's through LinkedIn, friends, family, fellow professor, or former coworker. Then, reach out to those 5 to 10 people via email. That makes it really easy for that person to want to respond and take time to talk to you for 5 to 10 minutes. Then, repeat that process. So you've reached out to those 5 or 10 people. By this, you’re organically building this network of people that you've never met before in an industry or a field that you want to study or get involved with.
In terms of skills — just being curious. Soak up as much knowledge as you can. I also think a lot of it is also figuring out what you don't want to do, and you do that by being open to opportunities, whether it's learning new skills or figuring out sales and marketing.
Find what resonates with you and see how you can apply that in your daily life.
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