Complete 8,000 autographs and earn a pair of sneakers signed by Kobe Bryant.
Emily Kaplan/The MMQB

The MMQB went behind the scenes at the NFLPA’s Rookie Premiere, where newly minted pros play Dance Dance Revolution, sing along with Justin Bieber and become action figures. The fun and games are all part of a master business plan

By Emily Kaplan
May 24, 2016

LOS ANGELES — On the fifth floor of the Lowes’ Hollywood Hotel, the fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears balks at the blinding lights. “You want me to step into that?” Jordan Howard asks, staring down an apparatus that resembles a full-body airport security screener decked with the megawatt lighting of a tanning bed.

“It’s quick,” says a man in a polo shirt, ushering Howard inside and shutting the door. “Just strike a pose, and stay still.” Howard, in full pads and a generic gray jersey, straightens his posture, lets his arms dangle at his sides, and stares into the glitz.

Bears rookie Jordan Howard begins the transformation to action figure.
Emily Kaplan/The MMQB

The most bizarre photo shoot of Howard’s life lasts 14 seconds. By the time the 21-year-old steps out, 72 cameras have captured every curve and angle of his body. He then traces his autograph on an iPad screen, is asked for his height—“six flat,” he says—and is led to a table littered with figurines of European soccer players and rock bands. After the German company completes Howard’s 3D printing, he too will join the collection.

“Wait, I’m going to be an action figure?” asks Howard, who played one season at Indiana after transferring from the now-defunct program at University of Alabama-Birmingham. “That is something I never in my life thought could happen.”

Howard was among the 40 rookies who congregated at the 22nd annual NFLPA Rookie Premiere in Los Angeles last week, igniting their commercial imaginations. If February’s scouting combine in Indianapolis is a job fair, consider this a business combine: newly minted pros are exposed to marketing and sponsorship opportunities, and can flaunt their individual brands to attract long-term partnerships.

Emily Kaplan/The MMQB

For one afternoon, The MMQB went behind the scenes and found Justin Bieber sing-alongs, signed Kobe Bryant sneakers, thousands of discarded markers, sore fingers and custom-made hats with pizza-printed brims. Rookies rotate through stations during this three-day event, so join us on a tour.

Mezzanine conference room

Connor Cook and Paxton Lynch need to put in reps before becoming NFL stars, and the quarterbacks are practicing by sitting four feet apart in leather office chairs. With craned necks, both quarterbacks hover over a table as they hurry through their progressions: each is handed a trading card with his likeness, which gets signed and then pushed to the done pile. “I’ve probably done about 5,000,” Cook says. “There’s no way I’ll finish.” The trading card industry spurred Rookie Premiere’s inception 22 years ago. Companies found that cards of the newest players drove business, but they couldn’t produce organic images until rookies stepped onto the field in September. The NFLPA offered to host a photo shoot in May so cards could hit shelves two months earlier. And if they players were going to fly out for a photo shoot, why not do signings and profit from it?

With advances in photo editing, the shoot (which occurred Saturday, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum) is almost obsolete now. Companies can transpose pro uniforms on stock images from college. The opportunity to gain money is not. Panini, the NFLPA’s trading card partner, wants each player to sign 25,000 items over the three days. To incentivize the sore-handed, Panini offers tiered prizes: 2,500 autographs gets you a motorized toy car, while 4,000 unlocks a pair of sneakers signed by Kobe Bryant.

Lynch, who boasted the night before that he would sign so many he could win three pairs of Mamba shoes, tempered his expectations. Among water bottles, empty bags of peanuts and stacks of unopened boxes, Lynch sighs. “This is more exhausting than rookie camp!”

Behind sound-proofed doors

“Uh oh,” Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard says, surveying the setup. “I was not expecting this.”

At the center of the room is a stage: for Dance Dance Revolution. In New York, Shepard will play alongside one of the most rhythm-happy tandems in the NFL (Victor Cruz and Odell Beckham Jr.) but today his “teammates” are Trevor Davis of the Packers and Michael Thomas of the Saints.

“All wide receivers?” asks the video host, who is recording footage that will end up on Bleacher Report.

“Of course,” Thomas laughs. “Everyone here is a wideout.”

Sterling Shepard tests his footwork with Dance Dance Revolution.
Emily Kaplan/The MMQB

Of the 41 invitees, one declined and 40 were offensive skill position players. (Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, the third overall pick, was the lone outlier in attendance.) Why the love for quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers? Surely the seven first-round offensive linemen could benefit from the event, as could Jaguars cornerback Jalen Ramsey and linebacker Myles Jack. The roster is crafted by the NFLPA’s business partners, such as Panini and EA Sports, who try to calculate what sells. These partners pay for the rookies’ trips to the exhibition—and then some. Each participant leaves with a minimum of $12,000 for signing cards, recording video content or taking photos. (Ever seen a cardboard cutout of Marcus Mariota in your grocery store? Chances are that photo was taken at the Rookie Premiere).

More than half of the players will walk away with at least $25,000 if they can win over or gain profit from some of the 20 sponsors, says Steve Scebelo, the NFLPA’s vice president for licensing and business development. Of course, this money comes much easier for the top two draft picks, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz. The Davis, Shepard and Thomas trio might look at someone like Beckham as an inspiration. “With all due respect to Odell, when he came here he was just another wide receiver nobody thought much of,” says Ahmad Nassar, president of NFL Players Inc. “But he met with EA, and built that relationship. He had that fantastic season, explodes, and he’s on the cover of Madden a year later. Of course, Ryan Leaf was also here in the late ’90s, and there’s no guarantee that everything will happen the way you want. But we tell the guys to make the most of this trip to get eyeballs and show off your personality.”

That’s exactly what Davis, Shepard and Thomas do, participating in a dance-off with gusto, and a healthy dose of trash talking. When Davis wins in a rout, Shepard protests: “It’s not even real dance!”

Hotel Suite No. 329

There were initially 40 invites, but sponsors asked for a late addition: the Vikings’ Moritz Boehringer.

Boehringer was a hit at the three-day event, though much of the hoopla is still foreign for the German-born wideout. In one obligation, players were asked to do dramatic readings of Justin Bieber lyrics. “I just don’t know what to say,” Boehringer said to the videographer.

“Just repeat, ‘Baby, baby, baby,’ ” the videographer instructed.

Boehringer obliged, preforming the lyrics with a thick accent and intermittent giggles. As he exited for his next obligation, he remarked: “This might be the weirdest thing I’ve ever done.” Attending isn’t just an honor for Bohringer, but also an obligation. As written in the collective bargaining agreement, if players are invited to the Rookie Premiere they need to attend, or they can’t participate in their team’s practices during that time (this prevents coaches from punishing players for making the trip). One declined anyway: Patriots wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, who according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, said he would stay home to study the playbook.

“We want players to focus on the field, but by not coming, Malcolm Mitchell can’t practice this weekend. And he could have brought his playbook here to study,” Scebelo says. “Really our only goal here is to connect players to our partners, who can connect players to the fans, and so that they can make money off it.”

The Players’ Lounge

There are dozens of eclectic prints to select as hat brims: Hawaiian florals, pints of beers, skulls, pizza and actual cork. Davis, the Packers 22-year-old wide receiver who wears his polo buttoned to the top, makes a conservative choice: the Green Bay G matches nicely with jungle greens. A former Cal Bear himself, Davis says he’s still nervous about playing with Aaron Rodgers. “I don’t even remember the first thing I said when I talked to him,” Davis says. “I was star struck.”

Packers rookie Trevor Davis shows off his personalized hats.
Emily Kaplan/The MMQB

Davis, a fourth-rounder who hadn’t put too much thought into the business of football before the Rookie Premiere, is still wearing the same black Nike’s he bought more than a year ago. He hasn’t decided yet between signing a deal with Adidas or Nike. “The past two days have made me realize how much is available for you when you get to the NFL,” he says.

Davis, the father of 10-month-old twins Braden and Camden, says he will put his first paycheck into his sons’ college funds.

“Everything here is cool,” Davis says. “But I’d trade all the shoe endorsements in the world just to sign a deal with Gerber’s or Pampers.”

And now he’ll spend the next few weeks figuring out how to set up business meetings with baby food and diaper companies.

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