Eagles' Barkley among NFL rookies learning to market himself

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Matt Barkley speaks to the media during an availability after Rookie Camp at the team's NFL football practice facility, Friday, May 10, 2013, in Philadelphia. (Matt Slocum/AP)

WE'VE HEARD IT thousands of times - professional sports aren't games. They are big businesses.

This weekend in Los Angeles, Eagles rookies Zach Ertz and Matt Barkley are getting a taste of the NFL's big business as they take part in the NFL Players Association Rookie Premiere.

Ertz, a tight end from Stanford drafted in the second round, and Barkley, a fourth-round quarterback out the University of Southern California, are two of 40 rookies invited by NFL Players Inc. - the marketing and licensing subsidiary of the NFLPA - to attend business seminars and connect with NFL sponsors, partners and licensees.

During the 4-day event, rookies will interact with NFL sponsors such as Topps, Panini, Pepsi NEXT, Nike, EA Sports, Fandeavor, FedEx, SB Nation, TheraPearl and elevee.

"This is a great opportunity to extend your networking in a sense and maximize your brand," said Barkley, who spoke will doing a card-signing event for Google+ Hangout. "As much as the NFL is a $10 billion-a-year franchise, as an individual, you're in your own business as well.

"The financial opportunities at this level are so great that there are a lot more things that you have to pay attention to maximize yourself as an athlete."

Frankly, most don't care about the business prospects of professional athletes, and nor should they.

But players in a sport with a career average of about 3 years have a narrow window of opportunity to take advantage of their status before the NFL owners are done with them and move on the next wave of disposable human commodities.

The NFL Players Inc. was established in 1994 to help players learn to take advantage of business opportunities beyond picking up their paycheck for playing on Sundays.

"It's important that people understand that they are coming into a business," said Keith Gordon, president of NFL Players Inc. "Even though they are fulfilling a lifelong dream of making it to the NFL, as soon as they get to this point, from Day 1 they should understand that the owners have a long-term business plan of which no player is a long-term part of.

"Most of these come into the league around [age] 21 and the average playing career is about 3 1/2 seasons. So if all you're doing is playing football and not taking advantage of all of the other opportunities that are presented to you in your very short career, you are missing a tremendous opportunity to leverage a platform of celebrity that you may never have again.

"We want to educate these guys on the $10 billion industry they are coming into that the commissioner wants to be a $25 billion industry by 2025.

"When companies are investing millions of dollars in the NFL, one of the ways they bring it to life is through the players in the NFL.

"If you are fortunate to be one of those top 5 to 10 percent of players, which a lot of these rookies will qualify for in their first season, for them not to use that as advantage to their long-term marketability would be a shame."

All rookies, however, are not created equal, with regard to marketability. Three of the top four overall picks in the 2013 draft - offensive linemen Eric Fisher, Luke Joeckel and Eagles first-round pick Lane Johnson - are not in Los Angeles.

The selections are influenced primarily by the trading-card companies, which do a lot of their initial card photo shoots.

If you are a card collector, you understand that offensive skill position players are the most desired in a rookie class. Miami Dolphins defensive end Dion Jordan, selected third overall, and San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o, selected 38th, were the only players invited who were not offensive skill players.

Of the six quarterbacks invited, Barkley was the fourth drafted (98th overall), but he has the potential to be one of the most marketable rookies at the seminar.

Much of sports marketing is based on name recognition, and Barkley, who has been in the spotlight since before he started his first game as a freshman at USC, has been one of the more high-profile faces of college football for the last 4 years.

Despite the fact that neither was a first-round pick, Barkley and Te'o were probably the two most recognized names in the draft.

Much like University of Florida quarterback Tim Tebow a couple a seasons ago, Barkley, based solely on his name recognition, could be a guy companies want to take an early flyer on in anticipation of how marketable he'll become if he does indeed develop into a marquee NFL quarterback.

Barkley, who may be as savvy about the business of sports as any athlete who has come through Philadelphia in a long time, understands what it could mean if he is able to take care of the most important part - the football part.

"It all comes back to performing on the field," Barkley said. "Marketing is really about how are able to perform on the field.

"As much as you can market yourself and set yourself up for endorsement deals, unless you are performing on the field and prove you are a valuable asset to companies those will quickly go away.

"My ultimate goal is to develop myself as a NFL player, so that I play well. Then from there, the relationships that you've made you can hopefully utilize and they will become even more valuable down the road.

"As much as I do to not hurt your brand, you also want to do things improve it. You want to set yourself apart. Your play on the field can allow you to maximize your value."

 


Email: smallwj@phillynews.com

Columns: ph.ly/Smallwood

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