Endorsements Headline Sports Business

The Misunderstood Role Of Marketing NFL Players

The following article is a guest contribution from Evan Brennan. Mr. Brennan is a current student at Whittier Law School in Orange County, CA. He holds a Master’s degree in Sports Management from California State University at Long Beach, and a Bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University. He has worked in athlete public relations, marketing, and other areas for various sports professionals and companies for years. Follow him at @brennansports on Twitter.

MINNEAPOLIS - NOVEMBER 4:  Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings runs for a 1st down in the 1st qtr against the San Diego Chargers on November 4, 2007, at the Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Minnesota won 35-17. (Photo by K.C. Alfred/Union-Tribune via Getty Images) *** LOCAL CAPTION ***
Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings is the exception when it comes to marketing deals for NFL players. (Photo by K.C. Alfred/Union-Tribune via Getty Images)

One of the most important, but perhaps misunderstood roles of a sports agent is that of procuring and negotiating marketing and endorsement deals. While this is largely known and stereotyped by popular media portrayals of agents, what really occurs is much different.

My main experience in a variety of settings is with professional football and baseball players and their representatives, but there is significant overlap nonetheless with other professional athletes. With football players, any kind of endorsement, appearance, or marketing deal is much more difficult to obtain on behalf of them than one would think, unless your client is Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, or Adrian Peterson and you’ve been Head of Marketing for years. Companies in a lowered economy are looking to maximize their ROI that they receive from any promotional or marketing deal, and are therefore much more selective and discerning. This requires agents in the football player-marketing world to be creative, realistic, and pressing in their efforts.

There are 53 players on each team’s active roster, with an additional eight members on a team’s practice squad. Therefore at any given moment during the regular season, there are 1952 professional football players under contract (some small exceptions and designations notwithstanding). That is a lot of players. Therefore, to a potential sponsoring company, the idea of having a pro football player is not as alluring to them as another athlete may be, knowing that there are thousands of others players out there diluting a deal of prestige, awareness, and some sport exclusivity to what is being offered. Beyond this, so many players equates to competition with the same companies for those marketing and endorsement dollars that may not exist to the same degree with other sports, thereby hurting the player’s and his representatives chances. Couple this with the fact that professional football players wear helmets when they play, thereby taking away a great of the facial recognition that the public may have with other athletes in sports without helmets, also hurts their marketability with the public and potential sponsoring companies. Furthermore, professional football careers are so much shorter than other athletes, that for the vast majority, their ability to achieve notoriety to be in a position to get a decent sponsor or endorser is very limited. Prospective football player marketing agents should know that success can be had on behalf of their players, but that work, skill, creativity, and connections will be paramount.

With NFLPA agents, there is a great deal of networking and cold calling to various companies that may be willing to work with the athlete in different markets. Some representatives may prefer to keep all revenues and possible marketing opportunities in house, but run the risk of if their efforts are inadequate or “as sold” to the player, that they will bare the brunt of the all the blame their detriment. Others may have their own efforts and either allow the client to seek marketing representation elsewhere or seek it out for the client themselves. It is a strategic choice based on perceived abilities and client interests. Peyton Manning’s deal with CAA for team contracts and IMG for marketing/speaking is likely along these lines.

Agents will consult with their clients as to what categories they wish them to target. For many athletes, their tweets, Facebook posts, and other social media broadcasts will be crucial bargaining chips in speaking with companies. For many players, especially those simply fighting to make the 53-man roster, many deals may not be in cash, but in kind. Companies are much more willing to get products into a player’s hands and have him discuss it over social media than give him cash for one media attempt.

Remember that for many agent deals, their incentive is to keep the client happy, and to collect a commission on a deal procured on their clients’ behalf. If the deal is made in kind, this can disincentivize an agent who is looking for a monetary commission, and this may produce some unintended negative consequences. Whereas a retainer-type deal eliminates this, but may prove to have differing motivational concerns for the agent (more so for the player) as he has essential collected without producing for the client.

While top names in football may be working with enormous entities such as Adidas, Nike, Gillette, BMW and the like, most football players obtain deals with more regional or local companies. The larger-name players have enormously lucrative deals with complexities, escalators, and other several different performance clauses that extend into several different facets, while smaller players may only have a single obligation and a very short term. Agents try to extend these relationships and not exclusive their clients with a certain company or category unless there is significant monetary incentive to do so.

In the end, marketing for football players is a network-based endeavor greatly influenced by one’s sales and business acumen. Those pondering going into such a field would be wise to possess sales and marketing skills and obtain several internships and entry level positions to gain a good understanding on how the best do this day after day for their clients.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.