Next Thursday evening the National Football League kicks off its 94th season with a match-up between the defending Super Bowl Champion Baltimore Ravens and one of the Las Vegas betting line favorites to win the 2013-14 title, the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos. And in America, all will be right again with the world.
Forget tensions in Syria, or the conflict between North and South Korea, or the drama in Beijing surrounding the Bo Xilai trial – when the NFL kicks off its regular season and warm summer days turn to cool Fall evenings, the public consciousness turns from world affairs to how one’s fantasy football team is shaping up and the perennial fan debate of who should be quarterbacking the New York Jets.
It’s a $9 billion annual profit bonanza for the league and its owners that is unmatched by all of the other professional sports leagues in the country combined. So you might ask what is second to the NFL in terms of popularity? Well that would be college football, where elite programs such as Alabama, Ohio State, Texas and Michigan take in well over $120 million annually in ticket, sponsorship, licensing and media rights revenue without having to pay player salaries and with games now broadcasted every evening except Sunday and Monday, in deference to the NFL.
With those figures in mind, I’m often asked how marketable are NFL players? To provide some background, my firm has a very fast growing sports & entertainment practice that handles PR and brokers sponsorship and endorsement deals for the likes of U.S. Speedskating, the Southwest Athletic Conference, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, and NFL stars such as Michael Vick, Chris Canty, Geno Atkins and many others. So the answer to the question of how marketable are most NFL players? Well, it’s less than one might think.
Sure, there are stories like that of Houston Texans star running back Arian Foster (at left). Two years ago our sports & entertainment practice sought out and brokered deals for Arian that were worth more to him annually than the Texans were paying him in salary, but those stories are rare. Most NFL players, unless they play the glamour position of Quarterback for a marquee franchise, have to scrounge to get three basic type of deals available to them: an apparel deal from the likes of Nike or Under Armour, most of which are product-only and include little if any cash; a car deal, which is also usually a trade deal on a leased vehicle with a dealership in their local market in exchange for appearing in an ad campaign or dealer event; and a cell phone deal, again which is often trade-only in exchange for making some local store appearances.
Some players are offered a fourth kind of deal once they become better known and that’s a memorabilia deal in which they get paid a flat fee for signing a certain number of jerseys, footballs and photos and those deals are typically the most lucrative of the four deals available to 95% of players. And therein lies the dirty little secret of NFL marketing: unless you are Tom Brady or Peyton Manning or Drew Brees — who my firm also works with via his new endorsement deal with our longtime client Wrangler jeans — the money most fans think NFL players earn off the field often isn’t very much, if anything at all.
For that reason we counsel our players to spend and invest their money wisely. The average NFL career lasts 3.4 years. That means many of these players are out of the league by the time they are 25 years old. Many have left school before graduating to prepare for the NFL draft so they have no degree to fall back on. And if they get hurt, for every $100M, 8-year contract deal announced, fans should realize that more often than not, those are really a series of 8 one-year contracts that can be terminated at the end of each season for no reason other than a team’s concerns about a player’s health or a decision by the team president or GM to go with someone younger, cheaper, or more athletic. Which is not unlike how many business executives evaluate their own staffing.
So let’s raise a pint to the NFL and those gridiron heroes. It’s a glorious game that even in the face of concerns about concussions, off the field player conduct and bounties being placed on player’s heads, continues to grow in stature like baseball’s Alex Rodriquez and Ryan Braun on PEDs. Cheers.