Playmark Opens Digital Licensing Shop with Rights to 2,000 NFL Players

10/25/11Follow @curtwoodward

Professional athletes marketing their mugs in endorsements is nothing new. But the explosion of digital goods and micro-entrepreneurs has opened up a ton of new ways for sports stars to make their mark, such as the mobile apps and games from the likes of Chad Ochocinco and Mike Tyson.

Seattle startup Playmark is hoping to be a broker for even more innovation in the sector by setting up an easy-to-use online marketplace for licensing rights. The startup’s first major licensing partner is a big one: the NFL Players Association, which is also a strategic investor in the company.

“We think it’s a really tough thing to crack, and we feel we have arrived maybe at a way to crack the code by partnering with the Players Association,” says Playmark co-founder and CEO George Aposporos, a former early VP of business development at Amazon.com.

What makes the sports-licensing game so tough, Aposporos explains, are all the overlapping rights held by different entities over different parts of the overall sports experience. Playmark’s deal with the players’ union, for example, allows it to license the name, number, likeness, and autograph of some 2,000 NFL players. The rights to the games themselves are held by the league, and the individual owners control all the assets associated with their teams.

Playmark says it can help make navigating that thicket seamless for entrepreneurs who want to make sports-related products. The company wants to add leagues, teams, and other sports as time goes on—and its technology can sort out all of the various rights-holders on the back end, figuring out each rights-holder’s share of any given collection of material.

The players’ union also continues to have the final say on uses of its member’s likenesses. Playmark’s guidelines lay out some of the cases that are unlikely to be approved, such as “demeaning portrayal of athletes,” “distasteful humor and language,” or “adult content and illegal gambling.” Interestingly, the union also apparently only wants games that pit a user against one athlete, not multiple players at once.

“Maybe it’s my Amazon days, but one of my favorite quotations is ‘Making something easy is hard,’” Aposporos says. “You have to democratize access across different kinds of situations and essentially unify a lot of fragmentation.”

One early example of a licensing customer is ESPN’s Sports Bar Facebook game. That game already had some licensing rights, Aposporos says, but Playmark’s broader access to the players allowed ESPN’s game to offer even more digital goods. “Now, they’re adding autograph graphics from our system to build customizable social jerseys within the game,” he says.

Another interesting case involves Electronic Arts games, which owns the Madden NFL video game franchise. Part of making that game inclues digital 3D head scans of all the players—but that asset was locked up for use in the game until now. With Playmark brokering the rights, those head scans could be used in any number of applications, including physical goods like bobblehead dolls, for instance.

The market for licensed sports merchandise is huge—Aposporos says some estimates show it at around $18 billion worldwide. At those levels, “even a high single-digit share would be not insignificant,” he says.

It’s certainly a forward-looking deal for the players’ union to cut. But they surely understand better than anyone how short-lived a pro career can be, no matter how big those paychecks look at the time. “Our players can’t wait to see what today’s creative designers and developers can dream up,” said Keith Gordon, president of the union’s for-profit licensing arm.

Playmark currently has nine people on its team and is backed by angels from the Seattle area and beyond, along with the NFL players’ union investment, Aposporos says.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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