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The NFL draft kicks off tomorrow, and while millions of beer-guzzling Americans will tune in to see who their favorite team takes, the off-field stakes are similarly high. There will be no shortage of articles ranking the best lewks from the draft, but what players wear have implications that go way beyond their ambitions to be style icons. Let me explain.
The brands are definitely watching
The NFL draft is, of course, a very important night for the players, but I know what you’re thinking: “What about the brands???”
When I started reaching out to companies about this, it felt like a bit of a stretch. Do they really use draft night as an opportunity to scout for future campaign stars? “I absolutely do,” says Kevin Lavelle of Mizzen + Main, which counts Houston Texan J.J. Watt as a brand ambassador. “I'm always looking at what guys coming out of college believe fashion is.”
Whether these players know it or not, they’re making a statement about their personal brands, and the brand brands are listening. Lavelle says he understands the players who go all out (“more power to them”), but that’s generally a signal they’re not a great fit for the more classic-leaning Mizzen + Main.
While an Ezekiel Elliott belly-button-baring type might not be right for some brands, these kinds of players appeal to labels on the more adventurous end of the spectrum. Ostentatious luxury label Philipp Plein works with fashion-forward NFL players like Texans wide receiver Braxton Miller and the New England Patriots’ Danny Amendola. “We really like the people who are courageous with the way they dress, people who want to make a statement and who are in your face,” says Jennifer Leppla, the brand’s head of global PR and marketing. The Plein team will be watching the draft, too.
The wheels have been in motion for a while
Rebecca Otto, a vice president at Independent Sports & Entertainment, agrees that the NFL draft is a “coming-out party” for players, but says that a really good management team will have been thinking about branding long before the big night.
Typically, Otto starts lining up endorsement deals for players the day they sign with her. She and her team ask them questions like: What brands are you already into? What do you do when you’re not playing football? What products do you use without being paid to? Otto, who is working her 10th draft this year, says it’s about letting a player express his true style and then finding brands that are the best fit.
Location is key
A player drafted by the New York Jets is going to have different endorsement opportunities than a player headed to Ohio to play for the Cleveland Browns. Otto points to how location has helped the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr., who’s shown an interest in fashion and modeled for Vogue: “Would he still be the same person and would he still be able to be successful off the field elsewhere? Probably, but it would be a completely different journey.”
Brands also make calculations based on where a player ends up. There’s a premium associated with guys in the biggest markets (New York and Los Angeles, but also Chicago, New England, Dallas, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Seattle, Green Bay, and Denver), says Lavelle. But sometimes, it just comes down to where a brand wants to grow — even if a company is into a player’s style, getting drafted to certain regions can be a dealbreaker.
Oh yeah, the player
Players may actually be a lot less concerned with whether brands take notice. When I bring it up to top QB prospect Deshaun Watson, he says he’s never considered it. What players wear to the draft is, first and foremost, a way for them to express their personal style.
And while he’s not thinking about what Ford will think, he is considering what his outfit will say to his future employer. “The suit says I'm here about business and here to play football and do what my job requires of me,” he says. “But it also lets me have a little swag and be myself.”