NFL and MLB players team up on marketing venture

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The unions that represent NFL and MLB players are starting a company designed to help athletes in all sports capitalize on the value of their name, image and likeness, especially in the burgeoning market for video games.

The new company -- named OneTeam Partners -- is backed by private equity firm RedBird Capital, said the firm’s founder, Gerry Cardinale.

The business will be run by Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc., the union’s licensing and marketing arm. Brent Stehlik, an operating partner at RedBird Capital and formerly chief revenue officer of the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Padres, will serve as president.

At the outset, the new venture likely will focus on video games and trading cards, which are already revenue-generating platforms for football and baseball players. OneTeam Partners also will begin a venture fund, Cardinale said. The sports unions will have 60% of the equity, with RedBird taking the rest, he said.

“What we want to do is optimize products across sports, whether it’s esports or cricket in India or North American sports,” Nassar said in an interview. “We think there’s so much room to run in terms of the types of games and products that are available to fans. The realization for all of us was partnering with outside capital and capitalizing this business. That was the missing ingredient.”

The hope is that NBA players, who reclaimed their group licensing rights in the last round of labor talks with the league, also will eventually join the endeavor.

News of the tie-up comes about three weeks after an NFLPA subsidiary -- REP Worldwide, the association’s group licensing arm -- and the National College Players Association, said they would jointly explore how college athletes from all sports can be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness. REP Worldwide also represents and has signed partners for the WNBA players association, U.S. Women’s national soccer team players union, MLS players association and the U.S. Rugby players union.

“There’s a trend for athletes taking back their rights,” Tim Slavin, president of MLB Players Inc., the union’s for-profit subsidiary, said in an interview. “That’s true not only in North America but elsewhere, too. We’d like to help those athletes build something that can be leveraged to help grow connectivity with fans.”

This isn’t the first effort by the NFLPA to get more entrepreneurial. In 2016, the association launched a venture group, the OneTeam Collective, using its members’ collective cachet, not cash, as investment capital -- alongside millions from established investors. It’s designed to trade the rights to football players’ images for equity in sports-oriented startups.

When it comes to NFL players rights to a players’ name and likeness can be quite valuable. Companies such as Electronic Arts Inc. and Nike Inc. pay the NFLPA handsomely to use the players in video games and other promotions.

Meanwhile, California and other states are pressuring the National Collegiate Athletic Association to allow college athletes to profit from their name and image. The NCAA recently took a step in that direction, recommending that student-athletes be allowed to “benefit” from such marketing. The governing body for U.S. college sports wasn’t specific, though its board voted unanimously to have its three divisions consider bylaw and policy changes that let students market themselves. The board set a deadline of January 2021 for changing the rules.

The Wall Street Journal previously reported on the venture.

Bloomberg News