NFLPA Launches Accelerator to Bridge Diversity Gap in Licensing

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The NFLPA is launching a new business accelerator to support women and minority-led companies.

The two-year program, called Driven, looks to address the diversity gap in licensing by expanding the pool of entrepreneurs with NFL player rights, and in turn, diversifying the licensed products available to fans. The businesses selected will get access to the players association’s group licensing rights, which include player IP and marketing rights for every active NFL player—more than 2,000 athletes—and will be required to feature six or more players on products and campaigns in exchange for the group license.

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Driven companies will also receive business support from the NFLPA and its partners. The first year will focus on product research and development (specifically the creation of a product line that includes NFL player rights), marketing and retail strategy. Year two is when the accelerator will help its companies go to market, assisting with product distribution, player endorsements and activations. Mentorship and coaching will also be offered throughout the program, and up to $25,000 in growth funding will be available to Driven participants who meet certain benchmarks.

The NFLPA has earmarked internal funds for those investments through its venture initiative, according to Terése Whitehead, VP of consumer products and strategy at NFL Players Inc. Whitehead said the company will eventually seek partners to supplement the program with additional investment dollars, grants or funding if the accelerator “goes and grows” according to plan.

Despite the size of the NFLPA’s licensing business, women and minority owners only comprise a small percentage of its licensing roster. Just 14 out of 85 (or 16%) of the union’s current partners are led by women or minority entrepreneurs: seven consumer product licensees (three of which are player-led companies) and seven companies within the NFLPA’s investment portfolio. While the union only plans to start the program with two or three minority-led businesses in the first year, jumping to five companies in year two and more in year three, the goal is for at least 25% of its partners to meet NFLPA diversity criteria by the 2024 fiscal year.

“Driven [is] our first step in looking at ways to identify diverse entrepreneurs within consumer products, and not only adding them to our licensing portfolio, but ensuring they have all of the tools necessary to be successful,” Whitehead said in an interview. The program was developed alongside NFL Players Inc., the union’s licensing and marketing arm that generated $2.17 billion in player-product sales last year, and with input from NFL athlete entrepreneurs.

Whitehead said “sideline culture” was at the root of the diversity gap in licensing—systemic inequities that exclude people of color, women and individuals from other underrepresented groups from participation. “These [entrepreneurs] have been standing on the sidelines, excluded from the same conversations, resources, funding opportunities, etc., as others,” Whitehead said, “and we wanted to do something about it.”

Only female or minority entrepreneurs with early stage consumer product businesses will be considered for the accelerator. In addition to its founders, a qualifying company’s executive leadership and staff, consumer base and products must be geared toward diversity. Whitehead said Driven will focus on apparel and hardline products, particularly “unique” goods that go beyond the traditional licensing offerings like jerseys or trading cards. She points to categories like consumables and lifestyle apparel—perhaps designed alongside a player or players—as possible starting points.

The program will be available at no cost to participating companies. Terms of the actual licensing arrangements will be favorable to the businesses, Whitehead said, made to minimize any typical barriers to entry. “We’re going to be structuring these deals in a way that allows companies to come in comfortably without any sort of financial burden, if you will, especially as they’re getting off the ground.”

The Driven program’s partners include sports merchandise retailer Fanatics; 1863 Ventures, a national accelerator focused on supporting entrepreneurs of color; Licensing International, the brand licensing trade association; and OneTeam Partners, launched by the NFLPA, MLBPA and RedBird Capital Partners to work across group licensing, marketing, media and investing.

Driven’s advisory board includes Fanatics VP Kimberly Alula, Melissa Bradley (founder of small business mentorship platform Ureeka), Licensing International president Maura Regan, OneTeam Partners’ Malaika Underwood and Miami Dolphins linebacker Brennan Scarlett. Other NFL players will be involved in giving feedback through the product development, marketing and promotion stages.

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