The 2021 Collegiate Bowl was canceled in December, but the NFLPA pulled together a virtual iteration of the 10th annual event to take place Jan. 13 and 14 for invited prospects. Despite the absence of an actual all-star showcase game, both Fanatics and EA have signed on to sponsor the business and education-focused events that remain.
EA has long had a licensing agreement with the NFL, giving the video-game company exclusive rights to publish simulation games including the popular Madden NFL. EA, a previous partner of the Collegiate Bowl, was pulled back into the virtual fold for 2021 along with Fanatics. The online retail company is currently tied up in a three-way global licensing deal with the league and its apparel partner, Nike.
As the NFLPA explained to Sportico, both Fanatics and EA will receive “branding and shout-outs during our virtual programming as well as the opportunity to deliver additional informational resources to the participants over the chat and [online] platform.”
The organization declined to disclose figures surrounding the sponsorship, though it is safe to assume a virtual event likely carries less market value than a televised game. The NFL Network typically broadcasts the Collegiate Bowl, where sponsors receive on-air exposure and on-site assets.
The 2021 virtual version of the event will, however, reach more individual athletes directly than a normal year. The game expects its typical 100 NFL draft prospects to turn into as many as 200 for 2021, depending on how many players return to school. Due to the global coronavirus pandemic, the NCAA has granted all of this year’s college players the opportunity to return for next fall’s campaign even if they’ve exhausted their eligibility.
The annual all-star game always includes educational components, but the typical NFLPA programming happens around practices and the game. Without any in-person elements this year, an expanded version of those sessions are what remains.
“The Collegiate Bowl has always been more than just a game,” said Brandon Parker, the NFLPA’s communications manager. “It’s a showcase, but also a learning experience. So this year is an extension of what we do every year during the week-long experience, where we talk to the guys about the business of football and all the things that come with being a professional athlete off the field.”
This year’s “NFLPA U” will feature two days of live sessions, including a panel featuring a pair of pro players and two athletes from other sports discussing “the business of football and leveraging their brand/platform.” Former Browns general manager John Dorsey is among the planned speakers for the live programming, as are Falcons running back Todd Gurley, Patriots safety Devin McCourty and NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.
A host of specially created on-demand content will also be available to participants to help prospects prepare for their professional future. Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, for example, will discuss navigating relationships between player and agent with Mark Levin, who runs the NFLPA’s agent administration. Sessions on managing money, personal brand and business endeavors along with conversations focused on networking as an athlete and preparing for life after pro football round out the on-demand topics.
But a major benefit for prospects in the Collegiate Bowl, as with the East-West Shrine Bowl (which is also cancelled) or the Reese’s Senior Bowl (still slated to take place on Jan. 30 in Mobile, Ala.) is exposure.
NFL team scouts are usually on-site, able to watch players in person and conduct interviews with potential draft picks. As Sportico has reported, that exposure can be invaluable, particularly after a season in which almost every college team played a shortened season. To bridge that exposure gap, NFLPA U will conduct Zoom interviews with its attendees that will be shared with the league and its 32 teams.
“These NFL clubs are hopefully going to be making determinations on how much to invest into these players,” NFLPA director of recruiting Dane Vandernat said in a phone interview. “Interviews are a critical component in that process. Once clubs finish evaluating a player based on their football ability in season, the offseason is geared towards understanding who they are as a person. We’re trying to still give clubs a glimpse of that [side of] our players.”