It only took three minutes. Kansas City Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles learned about a fantasy football endorsement opportunity, and in about as much time as a commercial break during an NFL broadcast, the player and his agent had approved the pitch.
Most football fans are familiar with the big-name sponsorships—Gatorade, Nike, Verizon—but unless your last name is Manning, it's not easy to score million-dollar endorsement deals. However, NFL Players Inc. (NFLPI), the marketing and licensing arm of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), has been providing all NFL players with the right tools to market themselves to the public.
To get ready for the on-demand blitz, NFLPI launched an online micro-endorsements marketplace called Activate earlier this year. This was done through a partnership with opendorse, a Nebraska-based company and official licensee that uses a software platform to connect brands with players and agents who can quickly evaluate endorsements opportunities. The platform has helped everyone from Jamaal Charles to New York Giants punter Steve Weatherford sign sponsorship deals quickly.
Drawn-out negotiations are obsolete now that social media has leveled the playing field and made all players, not just superstars, more accessible. There are currently 1,486 NFL players on Twitter, with an average of 53,500 followers each. As a result, minutes after a game ends, players can be back in the locker room as tweets are sent out to followers.
The goal with these micro-endorsements is to capitalize on the fact that fans can now appreciate players on all teams, not just the guys from their favorite franchise. In Charles's case, he was asked to lend his voice to recordings for fantasy drafts. He engaged with fantasy owners, asking them, for example, "Am I number one on your draft board?"
"We represent more than 1,800 players," said Steven Scebelo, NFLPI vice president of licensing and business development. "Each player has had to work hard and overcome significant obstacles to make it to the NFL. We want to celebrate that success for all of those players. They all have a following, from their hometown to their collegiate and NFL cities. So the more we can tap into that entire fan base, the better connection there is to fans and individuals."
Take Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, for example, who ranked 28th in the most recent NFLPI sales list. As a young athlete on the rise who doesn't play in a large media market, he—and NFLPI—has an opportunity to leverage his personal brand by focusing on his connection to other markets. Luck played in Texas during high school and at Stanford in college, so NFLPI can reach additional consumers by licensing and selling Luck memorabilia to his fan base that isn't tied directly to the Colts.
"We're looking to increase touch points for fans," Scebelo added. "We're constantly looking for opportunities for more on-demand products because that's the future of the business."
One area in particular that seems to offer valuable endorsement possibilities is fantasy football. Per the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, fans will spend an estimated $1.7 billion on fantasy sports this year, and athletes are ready to capitalize on the popularity. Within the next few years, NFLPI plans to engage consumers with more merchandise like customizable t-shirts that combine a player's name with a customer's fantasy team name and logo.
"We provide instant access," said Blake Lawrence, CEO of opendorse, which powers NFLPI's Activate. "We allow brands of any size to search and find athletes based on their budget, goals and marketing initiatives. A decade ago, it would've taken us six weeks minimum to do one deal with one athlete. Now, it only takes six minutes."
Lawrence believes an athlete with a strong social media presence can complete three to five social endorsements per week. New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara, for example, posts multiple times on Twitter each week to promote the fantasy sports service DraftKings to his more than 91,000 followers. And through Activate, he commands more than $600 per tweet (the average cost is $375 per tweet). Overexposure is always a risk, but sponsored tweets can be much less obtrusive than TV commercials that are seen repeatedly.
Players who are unabashed and interact with fans regularly have their own built-in audiences, with or without sponsors. For certain players with particularly thunderous personalities, like Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the social media visibility makes it easy to work with a variety of brands simultaneously.
"Our players are right in that sweet spot of those who use social media most effectively and most originally on a day-to-day basis," Scebelo said. "I think they're becoming more intelligent about the value of their individual brands. We're just trying to help them connect more of those dots."