NFL Players Association Becomes Majority Shareholder in Content Company ACE Media

Tom Brady in Patriots-Steelers Opener - H 2015
Associated Press

The new company will leverage the NFLPA's exclusive access to almost 2,000 active NFL players.

The NFL Players Association is making a bet on the continued bankability of the league's players. The NFLPA will become a majority shareholder in a new production company that will produce original sports and lifestyle content starring NFL players. Athlete Content & Entertainment (ACE Media) will in turn be able to leverage the NFLPA's exclusive group player rights to nearly 2,000 active players.

The announcement came today from ACE Media, which will be headed by Scott Langerman, who previously was an executive at Vox Media's SB Nation sites. The venture is separate from NFL Players, Inc., which is the NFLPA's for-profit licensing and merchandising arm. The NFLPA's collective bargaining agreement stipulates that any company that wants to use six or more NFL players — whether for a TV spot, endorsement deal or personal appearance — has to broker that deal through NFLPA. (An individual player's agent can line up deals. And the NFL and the team's owners control the rights to team names, logos and uniforms.) Rather, ACE Media will focus on the content space. 

"NFLPI has built an incredible licensing business and has the infrastructure to really make that business work," noted Langerman. "The one area that's really untapped is content. In the context of NFL players, it's all the great stories and talent and passion that so many players have that very few people know about. When you layer that on top of the deep evolution that's gone on in the media, entertainment and technology worlds over the last couple years, the convergence was too great not to try to take advantage of it."

The NFLPA last season helped to get a group of players on ABC's Celebrity Family Feud, for instance. Langerman sees opportunities across the media space — on HGTV or Food Network for instance. Apparently cooking — and especially grilling — is a popular hobby among NFL players. One of his dream scenarios would be to have an NFL players edition of Jimmy Fallon's Lip Sync Battle, which airs on Spike. Or a reality show around the formation of an NFL band.

"There are a lot of guys that play instruments. How fun would that be to have them roll out at some festival during the off season? I really do think that there's so much like that that we can do," he added. "And now with the launch of the company we'll actually have the resources and the means to get some of that done.”

Said Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller: "We're all about being perfectionists on the field, but there is so much more to each of us when we are off of it ... We're multidimensional, with interesting ideas, pursuits and backgrounds. ACE Media will be able to lift that curtain and bring some of those stories and ideas to life. Players have been asking for an outlet like this, and we're excited to create some really cool content that will speak to multiple audiences in our personal voices."

And ACE Media already has lined up partnerships with BET Networks, Bleacher Report, Derek Jeter's The Players’ Tribune and 120 Sports. Some of the deals put players into existing shows, including BET's 106th and Park,  #BLX and Bleacher Report's Take it to House. But Langerman also is exploring original concepts including a series of town halls on BET during which players talk about issues of the day – "everything from the Confederate flag in South Carolina to domestic violence overall in society, but particularity in sports." 

The potential windfall is not insignificant. Last year NFLPI pulled in $145?million in revenue, up almost 50 percent compared to six years ago. That may pale in comparison to the NFL's estimated annual merchandising revenue of $1 billion. But NFLPI president Ahmad Nassar says he expects that total to increase again this year. 

"We haven't candidly done anything on content," admits Nassar, who is now among ACE Media's board of directors. "And we think that needs to change."

Hollywood has been attempting to capitalize on consumers' apparent insatiable interest in sports. And WME's $2.4 billion acquisition of sports giant IMG last year was the culmination of those aspirations. Nassar said he had many conversations with Hollywood agencies during the exploration process, and CAA was an informal advisor during the formation of ACE Media.

"People across the board were receptive; 'Oh yeah, that's a good idea. There's definitely a demand for this kind of content.' So then my question to the agencies became: 'Well why aren't you guys doing it?' And I got some pretty candid answers from the agencies. They said, 'Listen, we will forever be limited to whoever happens to be our client at that particular moment.' And the appeal to the content distributors, the networks, the web sites, that only the Player's Association can deliver, is we have direct access to any active player in the NFL, always.”

Now, that doesn't mean viewers are going to see Tom Brady or Richard Sherman on Celebrity Family Feud. The super star players will always have a plethora of lucrative opportunities. But Eric Winston, Cincinnati Bengals tackle and NFLPA president, noted that the new venture will "service everybody."

"The networks and the big marketing agencies are looking at the top five percent in the league," said Winston. "What's really cool about this is how player driven it is. It's not just about the big-name guys, it's about us all.”

If TV ratings are any indication, the negative headlines that have plagued the league lately have not dampened viewers' interest in the NFL. And marketers have continued to follow eyeballs — and consumer dollars. But both Winston and Nassar note that many of the players have expressed frustration over the media's tendency to ascribe the ills of a handful of players to the entire group. Nassar is careful to note that the NFLPA has a duty to defend its players and make sure the NFL's imposed discipline is fair. And he said that the negative headlines — from gun violence, to domestic violence to the concussion issue — has led to a "diversification" of media opportunities.

"On the sponsor and endorsement side, we haven't seen a drop off at all," said Nassar. "It really bugs [the players] that there's this notion of they're all violent, they're all terrible husbands and all of those negative connotations. And a lot of them want to have an outlet that is safe and trusted and isn't going to play a game of gotcha with them. They've pushed us to create those opportunities ourselves. And that's been a big part of the focus."