Power to the players: why the NFLPA is launching REP Worldwide

President Steven Scebelo discusses the creation of REP Worldwide, a 'first of its kind' brand management and group licensing venture launched this week by the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).

Power to the players: why the NFLPA is launching REP Worldwide

Earlier this week, the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) announced the creation of REP Worldwide, a brand management and group licensing firm that will represent players and properties across a range of sports.

Described by the NFLPA as ‘a first-of-its-kind group player representation business’, the new venture will provide licensing and brand management services to ‘athlete-driven sports properties’, including the US Women’s National Team Players Association (USWNTPA) and the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA), which have both signed up as founding partners and equity investors alongside NFL Players Inc, the NFLPA’s successful licensing and marketing arm.

Services offered by REP Worldwide - whose name stands for ‘Representing Every Player’ - will include: strategic planning; leveraging athlete intellectual property group rights; structuring licenses and sponsorships; consulting on marketing activation strategy; driving support for players and licensees at retail; and developing content opportunities through ACE Media, the NFLPA’s content and production subsidiary.

On Friday, SportsPro caught up with Steven Scebelo, the NFLPA’s vice president of licensing & business development and president of REP Worldwide, to find out more.

What motivated the NFLPA to create REP Worldwide and how long has this project been in the making?

Conceptually, we’ve talked about it for a few years but it was really only a year ago that we talked about how the business could be structured and pursued. It cleared the first hurdle in terms of ‘yes, it sounds like a good idea and something that we should be able to handle’, and then proceeded to stage of ‘why don’t we talk to some organisations out there and see if there’s interest in it’.

If we went out there and had discussions, talked to other players associations or group athlete licensing programmes, and weren’t receiving any interest, we probably would have let it go. But we did receive quite a bit of interest, and then two of those proceeded to agreements.

The way that we structured this was really to build upon the foundation of the business that we’ve been running for 25 years at NFL Players Inc. It’s a unique model: to have a for-profit arm of the labour union which is focused on revenue creation.

We knew - and it was part of our initial discussion - that most other players’ unions don’t have that and don’t necessarily have the resources to allocate towards the business. It becomes a bit of a catch-22 for them, where they really could use the incremental revenue that a group licensing programme can deliver but they don’t have the resources to go out and build it.

NFLPA is the majority shareholder but how is REP Worldwide structured? What kind of resources are being invested in the venture in terms of finance and personnel?

Initially we are building upon the foundation that is within NFL Players Inc and then the supporting business units within the NFLPA that already support NFL Players Inc. We’re tapping into existing staff and resources, starting with our business development team. As our business development team is engaged in discussions with prospects and potential business partners, they’ll be doing so on behalf of not only NFL players but the other groups that we’re representing.

We’re really focused on delivering success for these initial two partners. We want to make sure that these programmes achieve the levels that we believe they should be, and that certainly those two associations do as well.

Our goal is not to have a grasp that is too broad. Our goal is not to launch and say ‘hey, let’s sign another five players associations within the next year’. Our goal is really to deliver for the ones that we have and then if those are performing up to expectations and beyond - and, again, we’re confident in the business model - then at that point we would look at investing in additional resources and staffing.

Members of the US women's national soccer team will be managed and marketed collectively by REP Worldwide.

The involvement of the WNBPA and USWNTPA suggests you’ll have a strong focus on women’s sport. Firstly, is that a conscious decision, and will it be the case going forward?

Looking at both of those organisations, you’re looking at athletes who are the best at what they do in those respective sports in the world. When we started talking to them about what their goals were for their group licensing programmes, we recognised what we saw as growth potential.

That was why we started there and really it’s just a matter of looking at it from a players’ perspective: players supporting players. We like the approach of being able to take our expertise and what we do well and work with these other associations that could use these resources to help them grow.

I wouldn't say that women’s sport will be our sole focus but we absolutely proud that that’s where we’re starting.

That said, would you agree that women’s sports have been particularly underserved when it comes to group licensing opportunities? To what extent is the creation of REP Worldwide about raising the profile of female athletes and giving them a greater say in the way they are marketed?

I think it’s fair to say that. That was our evaluation and we do believe that they’ve been underserved. When you get to meet some of the players, the executive committee members of those different organisations, you see how powerful they are, how driven they are, how successful they are, how determined they are.

It’s interesting because the two we are working with are at different stages. The WNBPA will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year, and again after 20 years we still feel they have significant growth potential in real, targeted categories that should resonate with fans of women’s sports.

And then for the US Women’s National Team Players Association, really it was just earlier this year that they brought those rights back in-house through their CBA negotiations. They recognised the importance of owning those rights and being able to build them and direct them in a way that hadn't necessarily reflected their vision in the past. We definitely see the potential there.

We’re constantly trying to find new ways to evolve. Everything is constantly in flux so we have to anticipate where those next opportunities are.

This week’s launch announcement described REP Worldwide as a ‘first of its kind’, groundbreaking venture. What’s so unique about it?

I think what makes it most unique is the player focus. We’re not an agency and we’re not looking to be an agency. We’re looking to apply these same services that we’ve provided to our membership base to other players, and potentially other sports that have an athlete focus.

When I say that we’re not looking to be an agency, we are really focusing on the goals and objectives of those player groups, which means that, at some point, if those programmes and associations grew to a level where they could support it with their own resources, we would gladly turn the programme back to them.

I think what was important in having both of our founding partners be equity partners, we want them to be invested in the success of this venture and to see the potential of it so that ideally we do scale to the degree that we are taking on work with additional players associations.

It’s not a pure agency play. It’s something that is just organic with more of a player focus.

Your release mentions you’ll be focusing on ‘a selectively cultivated portfolio of athlete-driven sports properties’. Are you initially exploring opportunities domestically or are you looking at potential partners abroad as well?

We’ve had conversations with associations outside of North America. They’ve been more consultative because we don’t have offices open outside of the US. We don’t want to take on more than our expertise can sufficiently handle, so we’ll initially focus on opportunities within North America but I certainly wouldn't limit the ultimate scope to that.

As a founding partner of REP Worldwide, the Women’s National Basketball Players Association (WNBPA) will have an equity stake in the venture.

You mention emulating the success of the NFL Players Inc model and applying that to REP Worldwide. To what extent is this venture a sign of the NFLPA's broader growth ambitions and how does it fit within the association's wider strategy?

Anything that is growth-focused and growth-driven really comes back to our core objective, which is serving our player membership. If our goal is to continue to increase the revenue that we deliver to the NFL players, then it’s our responsibility to consistently find new avenues through which we can do that.

We absolutely remain focused on our core licensing business and our key partners, from EA to Fanatics, Panini, Nike, etc. These companies are core to our business so we remain focused on them. Simultaneously, we continue to focus on where else we can grow. There is no one within this building that is comfortable with being complacent.

We challenge ourselves to live up to what our players go through on a daily basis: always trying harder and looking for additional opportunities and trying to be creative. Thankfully, the leadership and the management and the executive committee have all set that direction. When we report back to the players on our executive committee, they’re always interested and are challenging us to do more.

We’re constantly trying to find new ways to evolve. We’re in a constant state of change - that certainly is true within the world of licensing and retail. Everything is constantly in flux so we have to be trying to anticipate where those next opportunities are.

On the subject of getting creative, your release mentions the potential for developing content opportunities through ACE Media, the NFLPA’s content and production subsidiary. What exactly do you have in mind on the content front, and in what ways will REP Worldwide look to leverage ACE Media?

It really just opens up the portfolio of athletes that ACE has access to when they are out pitching content opportunities and speaking with production companies and media partners about which players might be featured in the content that they create.

The model of REP Worldwide is kind of similar if you look back to when ACE was founded. There is a reason it’s called ACE Media - ACE stands for Athlete, Content & Entertainment’ - it’s not NFL player entertainment because the goal of that entity is to develop content for players worldwide in any sports. It’s about developing content opportunities around those players as personalities and individuals off the field.

We think there are a lot of compelling content ideas around the two associations that we’re working with. And again, when you go back to women’s sports, there are some really unique stories to be told there.

I won’t speak for Scott Langerman, the CEO of ACE, but Scott definitely has projects that are in various stages of development, where WNBA players or US women’s soccer team players can be plugged in. And I’m sure there will be new original development ideas specifically around those players and associations as well.

Scebelo was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.