For NFL Draft prospects, market size has big impact on memorabilia, endorsements

Cities such as Green Bay, Buffalo, Pittsburgh provide exceptions to rule

Cover Image for For NFL Draft prospects, market size has big impact on memorabilia, endorsements
For a marketable player such as Sauce Gardner, going to the New York market can be a massive boost. (Credit: Getty Images)

From Thursday through Saturday in Detroit, 257 players will hear their names called, achieving their lifelong dreams of reaching the NFL.

But life in the NFL isn’t just about playing, as these athletes learned from NIL in college, it’s also about business. Endorsements and marketability become a huge part of any professional athlete’s life.

And where these draftees wind up can be a key determinant in how much they’re able to capitalize in off-the-field earnings.

When it comes to the markets, size matters.

“Typically ... the larger the market, the bigger the opportunities.” said Darren Heitner, an expert in the world of NIL and the founder of Heitner Legal. “I'd say that the barrier has been eroded with time, because of how interconnected we are as a society.

“But that doesn't negate the fact that an athlete who's going to a major market like Los Angeles or New York is going to have a much greater platform for the larger national and perhaps international brands and deals that flow from them. There's just more attention that's paid to those markets and the teams that participate.”

Memorabilia, which is driven by a more intense fan base, is different though than other endorsement deals such as apparel, which tends to be much broader.

So, how does this all work?

For most of the top draft prospects, their memorabilia deals are already done.

Dave Maryles is a partner at Rubicon Talent, a management and marketing agency that represents several current NFL All-Pros, including George Kittle and Maxx Crosby. According to Maryles, most players slated to go in the first round of the NFL Draft will secure exclusive memorabilia deals between January and draft week. Some ink their deals even earlier.

Former USC QB Caleb Williams, who is overwhelmingly projected to go No. 1 overall Thursday, arranged an exclusive memorabilia deal with Fanatics back in 2022, before he even won the Heisman Trophy.

When memorabilia companies do this, Maryles said, it’s a gamble. And one that paid off for Williams and Fanatics, with the USC star projected to go to one of the country’s largest markets in Chicago.

“They're hedging their bet and hoping that they go to a good market, because it absolutely affects the deal,” he said.

A question that might pop up then, is if players are securing exclusive memorabilia deals in advance, why does the market matter?

And the way to answer that is to think about memorabilia deals the same way we think about NFL players signing contracts with teams.

The biggest signing of this offseason was Kirk Cousins’ deal with the Falcons: four years, $180 million, with $100 million guaranteed. Cousins will automatically earn $100 million, but has the chance to reach the $180 million mark based on his play.

Players are signing memorabilia deals with similar non-guaranteed escalator clauses, Maryles said.

“I'm just making up a number arbitrarily,” Maryles said. “Let’s say you're getting $100 an autograph. If you go to a premium market, you get a bump of 20 percent or something like that. Maybe you go to $120 or $125.”

The next question becomes: What are the key factors in the market? Success, size and history.

“If you end up going to a team with a really strong fan base, and a really good market, that's the ultimate win,” Maryles said.

This includes teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers, which both have television markets ranked in the top 10 for nationally premier franchises.

Buffalo is one of the NFL's smallest markets, but Josh Allen's marketability has flourished because of the Bills' rabid fan base. (Credit: Getty Images)
Buffalo is one of the NFL's smallest markets, but Josh Allen's marketability has flourished because of the Bills' rabid fan base. (Credit: Getty Images)

But the NFL has some unique franchises in small TV markets that still attract and carry huge national fan bases. These teams might not be a big win overall from a marketability standpoint, Maryles said, but in terms of memorabilia, they’re massively successful.

This group includes teams such as the Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers. All three reside in TV markets outside the top 25 nationally, with Green Bay and Buffalo outside the top 50. They’re historic teams in small markets, with national “rabid” fan bases.

“The market where there's more people is always obviously more exciting for a brand if they're selling something,” Maryles said. “From a memorabilia standpoint, it's all about the success on the field. Memorabilia goes to the ultimate end user, the fan.”

This trend is somewhat unique to the NFL, Heitner said, not just based on the way football is covered nationally, but the way other sports fail to market their stars. He noted the city of Pittsburgh in particular, highlighting the dichotomy in the Steelers vs the Penguins, a team that has won three Stanley Cups in the last 15 years.

“It creates less of an opportunity for exceptions to the general rule (of market size), Heitner said. “There do appear to be more exceptions in football than in any other sport.”

There are also teams in the NFL that ebb and flow in terms of memorabilia and marketability. A team such as the Denver Broncos, Maryles said, is one that hovers near the top when they’re successful, but struggles when they aren’t performing on the field.

The Seahawks are another notable oscillating market. Pre-Russell Wilson, Maryles equated Seattle to Siberia. It simply didn’t perform well in the memorabilia market. But during Wilson’s years with the Seahawks, they became one of the marquee memorabilia franchises. Now that Wilson is gone, and the team hasn’t been as successful as it was during that decade run, the numbers have dipped back.

Other cities, unfortunately, are almost stuck in a rut. Cities such as Jacksonville, Cincinnati and Cleveland simply aren’t conducive to building up the market. The teams don’t have a history of success and aren’t in premier TV distributions. That doesn’t mean, however, that individuals can’t rise through the barriers, Maryles said, citing Joe Burrow as an example.

“It's a whole equation. And team is a big factor in your market. But what you do, how you treat people, your personality is a huge factor,” Maryles said. “If you're eager to work, and create content, and be innovative, that will impact you.”

But ultimately, market size wins out. Although Dallas hasn’t played in the NFC Championship Game in almost three decades, Micah Parsons ranked first in the NFL in jersey sales in 2023, and Dak Prescott ranked fifth, ahead of MVP Lamar Jackson.

“If you have two players,” Maryles said, “skill-position players, both with the same stats, and one’s in a big market and one’s in a small market, one’s going to be making more money than another. That's just the way it works.”

Matt Liberman is a reporter and video producer for cllct.