Don’t tell Martellus Bennett that the relentless hype around the Super Bowl is a distraction. For the New England tight end—and a growing number of his fellow players—it’s a valuable branding opportunity.
The hottest new accessory for new NFL players is a personal brand, in which they offer merchandise separate from what is available either through the league or their teams. Atlanta’s star receiver Julio Jones sells t-shirts, hoodies and caps emblazoned with his personal double-J logo, while New England’s Julian Edelman hawks everything from “Get Squirrely” t-shirts to his own children’s book as part of his JE11 store.
Injured Patriots tight end—and celebrated party animal—Rob Gronkowski has a whole line of “Get Gronk’d” and “Yo Soy Fiesta” apparel, while his more ascetic quarterback boasts an array of “TB12” products ranging from workout gear to recovery sleepwear.
Bennett for his part recently announced the launch of “Football Marty,” an apparel line. “I just figured that the NFL is making so [much] money off of merch that if I could slide in and get a small percentage of it, I could find a niche market for myself,” Bennett told reporters last month.
Bennett is not alone in trying to draw media attention to his brand during the playoffs. Jones gave away Super Bowl tickets to a random customer who ordered from his online store, while Edelman’s supermodel girlfriend, Adriana Lima, rocked a JE11 hat at the AFC Championship game.
“I think it’s going to be the new norm” for NFL players, says Jenn Mamajek, the founder of SportsLink Marketing, which helps athletes build their off-field branding.
But don’t look for any of those brands on the sidelines Sunday: The players are prohibited from wearing any products during the game not licensed by the NFL.
The reality, though, is that these brands tend to have a short shelf life.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees launched his “Nine Brand” apparel company in 2012, two years after winning the Super Bowl MVP. The brand’s website is now defunct, and its Facebook and Twitter pages haven’t been active in several years. Brees declined to comment.
Other brands that have gone dark include Victor Cruz’s “Young Whales,” founded in 2011, and “Team Eighty,” which seems to have retired along with former wide receiver Andre Johnson. The players didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Indeed, the vast majority of these apparel and lifestyle brands won’t last long or make significant profits, says Shawn McBride, executive vice president of Ketchum Sports and Entertainment, a marketing firm.
But most of them also aren’t designed to be big money makers. “I think they are fun vanity projects,” McBride says.
Then there are the pitfalls of creating a brand in an industry where players can be traded or get cut with little notice.
Former Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson founded Lionblood Clothing Co. in 2011, but saw sales plunge after he was cut in 2014.
The lion theme “kind of pigeonholed us,” said Burleson’s business partner, Robert Montalvo. He said he and Burleson have plans to breathe new life into the brand this year, in part by shedding the Detroit association and marketing to a broader audience than just football fans.
The trick, at least according to former Pro Bowl defensive end Jared Allen, is not to take the business too seriously.
In 2007, after the Minnesota Vikings star grew out his signature mullet hairstyle, his friend made him a “Got Strange?” t-shirt to complement the look.
Soon, Allen says, he and the friend were selling “dumb little t-shirts” with sayings like “Mullet Militia,” out of the friend’s second bedroom as part of the JA69 brand. The Vikings also sold the merchandise in their team store. Allen estimates that at the peak of his career, from 2008 to 2010, JA69 pulled in around $150,000 in annual sales and made a modest profit.
“At the time, the market wasn’t flooded with personal brands,” Allen said. “We were very lean, we didn’t have a lot of overhead.”
And they had fun: a friend took the photos for the brand’s website, which features a provocatively posed Allen and carefree messages, such as “Wanting you all to stay ‘saxy’”.
“I think you have to temper your expectations,” Allen says. “I wouldn’t risk the farm on it.”
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