Play like a girl? Good.

REP Worldwide, the newest business development branch of the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA), is working to level the playing field for athletes who are underrepresented, boosting up the business success for female athletes in particular.

The NFLPA, a labor union of all NFL players, was founded in 1994. The association focuses on collective bargaining rights for those players, as well as wages, hours, working conditions, and more — including NFL Players Inc., which is the licensing and marketing arm of the business.

In 2011, the last time that the NFLPA negotiated its collectible bargaining agreement, the new management team set an ambitious goal to double the business during that agreement’s 10-year lifespan. And by the end of the last fiscal year in February, it had successfully doubled from $100 million to $200 million.

The think tank over at the NFLPA saw that growth and thought: “If we can do this for the NFL, why can’t we do it for other athletes and athlete-focused businesses?”

Enter REP Worldwide, a new branch that represents those who have been underrepresented in the past. The roster includes the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), and the U.S. Men’s and Women’s Rugby teams.

“It’s a well-oiled machine and everyone knows how that works, but why wasn’t that machine being adapted to work on behalf of women who just won the highest honor in global competitive soccer?”

– Steve Scebelo, NFL Players Inc.

“We knew that other groups of athletes [had] their group licensing rights but didn’t have a way to really monetize those, and they were entrusting those rights to other groups that weren’t necessarily prioritizing them,” says Steve Scebelo, vice president of licensing and business development for NFL Players Inc. “We were looking at those sets of rights as being very similar to ours and being able to take an approach that we’ve taken on behalf of NFL players. We know how to put together a group licensing program for groups of athletes, so why don’t we do that for [them]?”

And while REP Worldwide doesn’t solely benefit female athletes, it is making great strides in closing the obvious gender gap that is present in the sports licensing market. While retailers are quick to pick up NFL, NBA, MLB, and even some MLS product, they still seem to shy away from carrying product featuring USWNT or WNBA players and teams.

“The best example of that is the USWNT players when they came back from the 2015 World Cup and there was just no merchandise in the market to support them,” Scebelo says. “Contrast that with the Patriots [winning] the Super Bowl, and I don’t think 60 seconds has gone by before the first ad from Fanatics is airing with where you can get your Patriots Super Bowl merchandise. … It’s a well-oiled machine and everyone knows how that works, but why wasn’t that machine being adapted to work on behalf of women who just won the highest honor in global competitive soccer — they just won the World Cup and there was nothing out there to really celebrate that. That’s what we want to change, and I think that there is a market for that.”

Scebelo says that a lot of it might just stem from the basic human fear of change — citing that people get nervous when they have to look at things differently. In this case, these products might force companies to take a different marketing tactic than what they’re used to with their already-established programs, whether it is placing the product somewhere new in their store (the womens’ apparel section), using social media to sell directly to fans themselves, or using an even more creative approach.

“[Sports licensing] is a machine now, but turn the clock back 30 years ago, and … people even at that stage were thinking differently, and our players program has grown,” he says. “The fact that there is significant demand from fans for products featuring our players, that wasn’t part of the mix to begin. It continues to change and evolve — and you get companies, such as Fanatics, that do recognize that and come up with ways to create merchandise with flexible inventories. I think that always drives businesses forward: the creative approaches to doing things a little differently.”

So, why are there fewer jerseys and other types of merch available featuring your favorite WNBA and USWNT players? The WNBA, which has been around for more than two decades, isn’t new. One could point to our current society in general, in which women have to battle through incredible barriers simply because they are women. But Terri Jackson, executive director of Women’s National Basketball Players’ Association (WNBPA), says its also all about visibility.

“It’s not that folks don’t want to do [licensing],” Jackson says. “I just don’t think that we’re visible enough for them to see us and realize, ‘Oh yeah! That makes sense!’”

Crystal Dunn, USWNT

Crystal Dunn, USWNT

BETTING ON WOMEN

All players’ associations are unions run by — you guessed it — players. Each has a board of executives that represent the full roster of players, and help make decisions. The introduction of REP Worldwide has given a voice to these players, in both the business they create and the merchandise being sent out into the world.

“The players’ involvement is important for two big reasons,” says Meghan Klingenberg, USWNT player. “First, the products feel more authentic, making the relationship with the fans/consumers more authentic. They know they are supporting the​ players and the players​ approve of the products. Also, the players feel comfortable with what’s in the market, which means they will be integral in the marketing and sales of the​ products.​”

The athletes are not just clients of REP, either. Since they partnered early, they are also founding partners of this organization, meaning they not only have a stake in their own personal business and brand, but in the business as a whole. They are also able to help craft the beginning of REP Worldwide from the ground up and have partial control over where it will go in the future.

“Joining REP Worldwide was a great opportunity to materialize the values we hold as elite, professional players in the sports world,” says Nneka Ogwumike, WNBPA president and member of the LA Sparks. “We are not only clients, but also founding partners with an equity stake in the business. That, together with new business relationships, will create economic empowerment for us both individually and collectively.”

And the athletes themselves are not exclusively advocating for their own sports. All of them cross over and are willing to support the other players’ unions. When BreakingT, a REP Worldwide apparel partner, created “Bet on Women” T-shirts for the WNBA players based on an article penned by Ogwumike, NFL players wore them as well.

“There’s a bond that exists between all athletes, and I saw this at the 2019 NFLPA Board of Player Representatives Meeting where players took photos in ‘Bet on Women’ shirts to show support for WNBA players as they prepared for CBA discussion,” says Eric Winston, NFLPA president and veteran NFL player. “It showed solidarity and support for fellow athletes, gave all athletes more power when dealing with licensees, … and it presents a revenue line that we could grow in the future — all of these points, especially using our expertise to help our brothers and sisters in sports, was met with overwhelming understanding and enthusiasm.”

“Julie [Ertz] is mad-poppin’. She always comes up with some creative ideas. I love how much she cares about the team and thinks about ways that we can promote ourselves in new, creative ways.”

– Crystal Dunn, USWNT

BETTING ON THEMSELVES

With the support of new partners, other players’ associations, and fan demand, the players working within REP’s programs have two common goals: growth and longevity.

“Unlike the NFLPA, … we are small,” says Becca Roux, executive director of the U.S. Women’s National Team Players’ Association (USWNTPA). “I am one person; we hired our first staff person beyond me a month ago. And the players are extremely involved. Julie [Ertz] really cares about the product and has an incredible knack for thinking about who the customer is. She reviews all of the product — the style, the designs, our creative.”

All of the work that Ertz does for the USWNT products is unpaid. She does it because she believes in this program, her teammates, and the chance that REP Worldwide is providing them with growth potential. That type of dedication will help drive this small, start-up business to NFLPA levels of success.

“[I’m able to help] collectively push boundaries for women’s football globally,” Ertz says. “It’s cool for me to be able to work with companies who want to promote us on the field and make product [featuring] us because they look at who we are individually and [what] we stand for collectively.”

The athletes are able to flex their business-savvy muscles off the field. They are empowered to have control over their own individual brands. And especially, in a space that is very much dominated by men, women are getting the chance to be in charge.

Julie Ertz, USWNT

Julie Ertz, USWNT

“The dumb jock thing isn’t relevant,” Ertz says. “[It’s] been really cool to see the x’s and o’s of how you can push the boundaries in off-the-field endeavors. It’s cool to be around athletes who want to support other athletes because it’s the right thing to do. … We went from nothing to something in a crazy short amount of time. When you have something built from scratch and then to see the growth projections for where we could be in five years, there is no doubt that we are all very excited about this business.”

While REP and those involved know that they are doing something great, they also understand that they have a long way to go. Every step forward is a step in the right direction. The goal?

“A time when I can walk through Times Square and see my members up on the billboards because that means that what we’re looking to build them up and elevate who they are and underscore the value of what they bring to the table, it means we’re that much closer,” Jackson says. “We haven’t arrived because they’re up on a billboard, but we’re that much closer.”


This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Spring 2019 Issue No. 3, click here to read more!

Photos: Kevin Koski/NFLPA