Protecting the Shield by Building Players’ Brands

Hilary Sutton Issue 14 - Nov/Dec 2014, Legal Leave a Comment

NFL Players Inc.’s EVP and GC, Ahmad Nassar, blends legal and business acumen to help players maximize their earning potential


Winston & Strawn and our Sports Litigation Practice is proud to support Ahmad Nassar. It is a privilege to work with Ahmad and NFL Players Inc.” – David Greenspan, partner, Winston & Strawn LLP

Ahmad Nassar has a clear objective: to generate revenue for the 2,000 players of the National Football League (NFL). As Executive Vice President and General Counsel for NFL Players Inc. (NFLPI), Nassar is equal parts lawyer and shrewd business leader. He is the legal mind in the room when business strategies are formed.

NFLPI is the for-profit licensing and marketing subsidiary of the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), a not-for-profit union labor organization. NFLPI helps players in the NFL utilize their commercial licensing rights for business and marketing opportunities. When players sign with a team in the NFL, they also sign a group licensing assignment with the NFLPA that enables NFLPI to go to work earning revenue for the players through licensing their names, numbers, likenesses and images.

Nassar is the point man on business agreements and works to generate revenue for players through sponsorships and licensing with partners like EA, Nike and Pepsi. “Players assign it to us to manage in the group setting. Jerseys, video games, trading cards—we manage that for them. Licensing intellectual property is an inherently legal business,” Nassar said. This “legal business” results in $125 million in annual revenue.


The Myth of the NFL Player

According to Nassar the image the public has of NFL players with multimillion-dollar contracts they can retire on is largely false. “Their average career is less than four years,” he noted. “There’s a 100 percent injury rate. Some of these young men weren’t pushed to focus on school. Seeing that side of the business has really made it abundantly clear to me that the people I work for are people who need help from their union.”

Nassar joined NFLPI five years ago when his mentor, DeMaurice Smith, became the Executive Director of the NFLPA. Prior to Nassar’s arrival, NFLPI had no full-time lawyer on staff. It had also just lost a $25-million legal case. Nassar immediately focused on getting in front of legal issues and implementing best practices. Instead of being brought in when matters were urgent, he developed a strategy to put NFLPI ahead of potential issues.

Nassar lights up when talking about the guys in the league. “Our players have these tremendously unique stories to tell. There’s 2,000 of them, with a 20 percent league turnover each year. That’s a challenge to manage organizationally. Our work is figuring out how to tell that story in a way benefiting the players.”

And so he leads a small team of lawyers who support the players as a group. They have an average of four years to maximize the players’ ties to the NFL. Some of them do not have a clear next career step, so the work of NFLPI is crucial during the period they play in the league.

Nassar_Ahmad_photo2A Winning Leadership Style

At NFLPI, Nassar has two direct reports who also are lawyers. Over the years, Nassar has developed a clear leadership philosophy that reaps solid results: an open dialogue. Each team member is easy to reach and ready to solve issues as they arise.

“We have open and frank conversations, so we get the best results. That’s a two-way street,” Nassar said. This open-dialogue approach means that anyone on the team can ask “why,” and anyone can offer a solution to a problem. “We get one of two results,” Nassar said. “A suggestion leads to a good idea and we do it, or we don’t do it and we at least have the conversation where we explain why.”

The purpose for embracing the questions? “We need to continue to reexamine to make sure the way we are doing things now is right.”

Though he once toyed with the idea of playing Division III football in college, the former high school football player could not have fathomed one day working closely with NFL players. In fact, while he considers his role with NFLPI a “dream job,” Nassar never even imagined such a unique opportunity coming his way.

His advice to young people who would like to follow in his footsteps is to be open to new opportunities. “Borrowing from football coaches, have your head on a swivel,” Nassar conveyed. “That means being cognizant of what’s out there. That’s the most important thing for people who don’t have the luxury of charting their careers years in advance.”

Whether he’s relaying similar career advice to NFL players who are at a career crossroad or working to secure multimillion-dollar licensing agreements, one thing is for sure: The players of the NFL are better off with Nassar on their team.

Nassar’s mentor, DeMaurice Smith, Executive Director of the NFLPA, gave him three insights he’ll never forget.
  1. Perspective is key. “The first time we worked on something together, I was sitting in his office when he got a call from a panicked associate, a younger lawyer. After re-reading a draft, that lawyer realized he had sent a document to De with a minor grammatical error. De was bewildered. De hung up the phone and rolled his eyes, smirked and said, ‘This guy emailed me and said it was an urgent issue, this grammatical error. I come from a world where an urgent issue is a call from the morgue to bring a family member to identify a body. That’s an urgent issue.’ We shook our heads and went back to work.”
  2. Use the “Advance Game Theory.” “Think of it as chess versus checkers—thinking two, three, four moves ahead and gaming out how your own actions will cause someone else to react. De taught me that back at our law firms, and he’s most certainly carried that over to the NFLPA. Examples include our approach to the NFL lockout and our licensing and marketing business strategies.”
  3. Balance makes better employees. “Balance is a constant struggle for me. I have to remember: I’m not a surgeon, I’m not on call. De does a great job of balance. He coached his children in different sports while he was a law firm partner. I’ve been able to coach my kids in baseball and soccer. I know that’s important. It does me no favors to have my team under lock and key from 8 am until midnight. I want them to take vacation. It makes them more well-rounded employees in the long run and healthier people in the short run.”


Hilary Sutton is a freelance journalist, actress, and principal of HSL Creative in Lynchburg, VA.

Ahmad's Key Partners:
Winston & Strawn (Corporate & Transaction matters) | Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, LLP (Intellectual Property Law Firm) | O’Melveny & Myers LLP (Sports & Media Practice)

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