The NFL’s Innovation through Professional Athletics

Audio Description

Our guest, Sean Sansiveri is not only Adam's twin brother; he is general counsel and head of business for the NFL Players Association. Tune in for the ins and outs of the NFL's approach to playing a contact sport during the Covid-19 pandemic, insight into how the sports platform is working to innovate on injury prevention, and some brotherly banter.

Transcript

00:09 - 00:33

Hi, everyone, and welcome to The Big Stage where we talk to athletes, artists, and entertainers about their lives and impact. I'm your host, Adam Sansiveri, Bernstein Managing Director and Co-lead of Sports and Entertainment. It's hard to believe we are kicking off season 3 right now, and it's the year 2022. We've had so many amazing guests over the past two years, so I hope you'll go back and catch up on any that you've missed.

00:34 - 01:21

But today, I can't think of a better way to kick off this new year than with the esteemed guest that is with us today. He is general counsel and head of business for the NFL Players Association, the union that represents the players of the NFL. He oversees strategy and execution of business and legal initiatives for the NFLPA and NFL Players Inc. He also directs the NFLPA's health, safety and medical research initiatives, including COVID-19 and protocols governing the evaluation and management of concussions. In 2021, the Athletic ranked him a top powerbroker in the NFL, and he continues to have a major impact on professional sports. Oh, and I neglected to mention that I've known him longer than any guest we've ever had on this show because he also happens to be my twin brother, Sean Sansiveri. Sean, welcome to the show.

01:22 - 01:23

Good to be here. Long time, no talk.

01:24 - 01:26

I know what like 12 minutes or something like

01:26 - 01:29

We should have done this together over the holidays when we were actually in the same room.

01:29 - 01:36

, it would have been a good idea. You're actually right. But first, I have to ask you this question. Why is it taking you so long to be on The Big Stage?

01:37 - 01:49

My invitation to appear on this celebrated program is probably the culmination of decades of hard work, and I guess you could say I finally arrived and made something of myself. OK, I'll take it. That's a good answer.

01:49 - 02:13

Look, I want to jump right in, and let's start with the elephant in every single room, and that's COVID-19. This pandemic has affected all industries and clearly has severely impacted the world of professional sports. You are in a unique position to talk to us about this. So how has the NFL's approach to playing a contact sport while an infectious disease rages on changed from last year to this year?

02:13 - 03:09

And here I thought we'd get through the whole thing without talking about COVID, right? No. It's really a contact sport and a contact disease, and our approach, the NFL's approach year over year has remained relatively consistent. We put all sorts of measures in place that mitigate the risk of virus transmission. It's all the stuff that we in society have had to endure for, you know, I mean, almost going on three years. Things like testing, physical distancing, PPE, contact tracing and a real emphasis on masking, plus things like genomic sequencing and a whole lot of epidemiological work to understand how the virus spreads inside and outside of NFL facilities. Obviously, things changed a lot this year with vaccines. The NFL player population, for instance, is over 94 percent vaccinated, but that target moved again with Omicron. So in many instances, we had to go back to the basics in an effort to limit transmission.

03:10 - 03:37

It's interesting and you know, we've all adjusted as you've just said and endured a few different variants. And naturally, the testing protocols in the NFL have evolved from one moment to the next, which I know you play a big role in, despite the rise of Omicron cases forcing some games to be rescheduled. The NFL recently decided to actually reduce COVID-19 testing for asymptomatic vaccinated players. Why is that? And so far, has this strategy been beneficial?

03:37 - 04:18

Yeah, it's a simple question with a really complicated answer. Last season, the players fought and won daily testing. That was one of the most valuable tools we had for keeping the virus out of the building. This year, with the introduction of vaccines, the NFL just flat out refused to daily test. We believe that was a big mistake and one of the reasons that we've had so many positives this year. The NFL decided to test vaccinated players once per week, which meant an asymptomatic individual could essentially be in the building shedding virus without being detected. And if you don't know, you can't intervene. So when we had a big spike in positives in December, we had well over 500,

04:18 - 04:57

The league moved to a more targeted testing strategy that, in my opinion, is better than what we had deployed for the first part of the 2021 season. That testing strategy included daily testing of the unvaccinated players, spot testing of vaccinated players, spot testing being sample selection from position group and staff members, voluntary testing for any player, any time if they wanted to test more in order to feel comfortable, and then testing based on symptoms, which is the approach that's largely deployed in the medical community. It is by no means a perfect solution, but COVID continues to be a novel and emerging virus that requires a malleable approach.

04:58 - 05:15

Interesting. And I just heard a plane fly overhead, which we'll get to a little bit later into where you're actually calling in from. But let me stay on this topic. I've heard that the work you and the NFL are doing related to COVID-19 actually influences the CDC in some way. Can you tell us more about that?

05:15 - 05:53

Yeah, I mean, I wouldn't say influence, probably too strong of a word, but it's a really valuable collaboration. We share a lot of our data with the CDC and the FDA that helps them make policy decisions, information about how the virus spreads, data about cycle thresholds, the amount of time it takes for an individual to turn positive after exposure. And another example would be this year that over two-thirds of our infections were entirely asymptomatic. The remaining third was mostly mild congestion, headaches, cough. I mean, one positive is too many. But the collaboration with a host of really impressive experts, including the CDC, the FDA and others is really what's allowed us to make it this far.

05:53 - 06:04

And I've heard you say to that point that the NFL is the largest asymptomatic testing population in the world. Do you think that's why it's so valuable to the CDC? Is that exactly what you were just talking about?

06:04 - 06:31

I mean, I think that is, and the answer to this question really depends on how nerdy you want to get here. But for example, with the UK and the Delta variants, we saw that over 90 percent of players turned positive within five days post exposure. With Omicron, it's actually 2.5 days post-exposure. And so that allowed us to inform things like an evidence-based return play strategy. So how quickly you can come back into the game, into the NFL ecosystem.

06:31 - 07:05

Also, because we were testing so frequently last year, we learned a lot about what I said before, cycle thresholds, which for the audience who doesn't follow this the same way that I force you to, the cycle threshold is really the number of cycles required for the fluorescence signal to exceed background noise, background levels on what we all know are our PCR tests. And this gives us insight into when a PCR test is a false positive, for instance, when a test is just picking up on dead virus particles for somebody who was previously infected and when it's safe to put somebody back into that team ecosystem.

07:05 - 07:37

Also this year, we were able to quantify the impacts of vaccines and even waning vaccine immunity. That was data that we shared early on and informed many people's different approaches to this area. But consistently, and it's an interesting point, but consistently throughout this season, we saw that unvaccinated individuals got infected two to nine times higher or more than vaccinated individuals. And so that further informed and doubled down on many of the protocols that we had that has gotten us through all of last season and now passed this regular season and into the playoffs.

07:37 - 08:23

Well, I tell you, I speak for all of our listeners or at least the football fans listening that if we had an applaud track, we'd insert it here. The fact that we did get through two seasons, which I know a lot of sports did not, and you and your team deserve that applause. So thanks for all of that and looking forward to our Tennessee Titans. For those of us who know we're recording in Nashville, ranked number one in the AFC. But I digress. OK, we could talk pandemic forever, but for the sake of everyone's sanity, let's switch gears. So much of what you do is about sports platform and leveraging that for innovation. With a 100 percent injury rate in the NFL, which I think most people know, and a conscious and constant focus to innovate on prevention,

08:23 - 08:25

what's the latest that you guys are doing in this area?

08:26 - 09:15

Yeah, I mean, we have 10 years of medical innovation that we could speak to here. So maybe we make this a two-part episode, or I'll just I'll give you a few highlights here. What comes to mind is, for instance, we have an occupational cohort study out of Harvard, all of its affiliated hospitals that is focused on defining the incidence and severity of illnesses and injuries that result from playing football. This is the largest study of living former athletes in history. It has over 55 novel findings to date, including really surprising things like, you have a 50 percent increased risk of myocardial dysfunction if you had an ACL tear. And as you know, I've had five knee surgeries, so that's one that hits home. And there's different aspects of this study that inform how we could potentially treat illnesses and injuries and so

09:15 - 10:07

arm of this study focuses on the commercialization of novel treatment interventions. Today, we funded about 25 and successfully commercialized things like bio enhanced ACL repair, a new way to heal your ACL without long-term osteoarthritis and a quicker return to play, to move away from the knee, it just happens to be my favorite subject. I'll look at the role of microvascular disease and how that plays in the onset of symptoms that are commonly associated with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Whatever one hears a CTE, or things like that are really kind of Star Trek sounding, self titrating hydrogels. Imagine an injectable that you can put into a joint that releases medication only when there's disease activity. Literally, if you have pain or inflammation, your body creates enzymes and this injectable will actually release medication that treats that as opposed to having to pop pills.

10:07 - 10:54

Separate from that cohort study, that larger study of ours, we do a lot of work in and around safety equipment, sensored mouth guards that help us understand concussive impacts, position specific helmets that reduce transmission of force to the brain. We have alignment, specific design. We have quarterback specific designs and a lot of innovation around field surfaces and cleats. Then we have a whole host of data-driven initiatives, things like using AI machine learning to really understand neurodegenerative disease progression and how you treat those diseases based on the phases of their progression. And that's a partnership with Cleveland Clinic, ADEI, which is a Bill Gates initiative, Morehouse and the like. And really, I could ramble about this one for a while, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

10:54 - 11:11

Yeah, I know you and I talk about this stuff all the time, and it's so fascinating. And you're right, we could talk about it for another hour, but thank you for answering an unasked question that I get asked all the time from friends is why do people have so many different helmets on, why two different positions wear different helmets on the field? So look, there's your answer, everybody. It's a good trivia question.

11:11 - 11:39

It's going to change a lot more as the technology continues to evolve because I think offensive lineman helmet will differ even from a defensive lineman helmet. This the initiative with the sensored mouth guards I spoke to actually taught us last year that offensive linemen experience a lot more rotational forces than defensive linemen. We would have never have known that just by watching the game or even through video reconstruction. You actually have to have these sensors with the accelerometers to inform those metrics.

11:39 - 11:40

Fascinating.

11:40 - 11:45

So what other main trends do you think will dominate the sports industry in 2022?

11:45 - 11:56

That's a good question. Sports betting, for sure. NFTs and Metaverse, I think, are two big ones. And then data licensing and human performance technologies. That's my bet. Pun intended.

11:56 - 12:17

That's great. Well, let's get into a couple of those things. The NFL once viewed sports betting as a threat, but not anymore. It's been over three years since the Supreme Court struck down the ban on sports gambling in most states, and currently more Americans are wagering on the NFL than ever before. Is this a good thing in your opinion, and how are the players taking advantage of it?

12:17 - 13:17

Yeah, like anything, it has potential to be good and bad. On the positive side, the NFL has opened the category to sponsorships, and the players participate in all of that revenue in the form of salary and benefits. It's all split through our collective bargaining agreement. It's also an opportunity for licensing player name, number and images. For instance, a slot machine or a state lottery. You know that the Tennessee Titans state lottery using player images. Players would get paid for that, or a slot machine in Vegas that has all the teams together and all the players. That's an opportunity to really grow revenue with this category opening up the way it is. And likewise, and this goes back to the data point, the union can license player biometric data to sports books to inform betting lines of players to participate more revenue generation. And I think we're going to see more and more of that in the years to come. Of course, the downside, all of this needs to be done with a meticulous eye towards maintaining game integrity. For our listeners who may not know, NFL Players Inc.

13:17 - 13:47

is the for-profit subsidiary of the NFLPA, the union. You guys are at the forefront of innovative new products. You've talked about a couple of things, but one example really stands out to me recently. And that was last month when the NFLPA and DraftKings unveiled plans for a gamified NFT collection to debut in the 2022-23 NFL season. That's exciting stuff, and probably not what people think of when they think about the NFL. So what more can you tell us about it? Sure.

13:47 - 14:24

The DraftKings partnership is a licensing deal for gamified NFTs, and I think all of us two years ago couldn't spell NFTs. Through our partnership with DraftKings, they ultimately incorporate Valuable Player IP, name, number, image, likeness, into rare collectibles that ultimately have gamified elements. And for them, it's things like their normal fantasy offerings, but incorporating NFTs and therefore a level of authenticity, scarcity and ownership. More globally, as it relates to this whole area of NFTs, it's a really great time to just be a licensor. NFTs are only as valuable as the underlying asset, or at least they should be.

14:24 - 14:48

And the assets that the NFLPA controls are player IP. Again, it's name, number, image, likeness, data, etc. We have and will continue to deploy these assets in various NFT settings. We look at them as product extensions, not a category. So you could have an NFT in a video game, you could have an NFT in a digital trading card. And we currently have partnerships with folks like Dapper Labs, DraftKings, with many others on the way.

14:49 - 15:20

That's great. As the world's leading investment research firm, all these things like NFTs, Metaverse, the interesting cryptos, all that stuff that's coming out, it's fascinating to us. We're constantly doing research, having conversations about it. For those that missed it, we had an NFT webinar last year that you can go check out on Bernstein.com. But staying along this line of thought, last November, the NFL opened its virtual store on the gaming platform Roblox, effectively entering the metaverse, which is a very hot topic these days. What's more to come?

15:20 - 16:18

It's a good question, and I think it's important to define metaverse because at least in my discussions from a licensor standpoint, a lot of people aren't really sure what that means. And so just from the most basic standpoint to us, it refers to this 3D VR space that's populated by content, things like digital objects, ads, media, characters, tools, experiences, right? And it's all designed by a decentralized community of creators. And so within this new ecosystem comes a lot of opportunity to license the same valuable IP that we've already touched on and the same ones I mentioned with NFT. It also comes with its challenges like ambiguity around ownership and rights enforcement. So like many other IP rights holders, we intend to be strategic and aggressive in this space. But I think it's still in its infancy. So we are not necessarily in wait and see mode, but in the same way I talked about data licensing, I think there's a lot of work to be done in this coming year and the years ahead.

16:18 - 16:22

So simply put, for those that have read or seen Ready Player One, it's like that.

16:24 - 17:00

I think we got tastes of the metaverse already in theory, right? Like if you look at Fortnite and what Epic did with building an over a billion dollars worth of in-game transactions on an annual basis, and I'm sure it's much higher than that now. I think as a licensor, that's how players and the NFLPA has the exclusive licensing representative of these players, ultimately are going to benefit by deploying valuable IP in multiple settings. And whether there's one metaverse or multiple, you can have exclusives to up royalties and minimum guarantees, or you can do multiple deals to see where the market's ultimately going to evolve to.

17:00 - 17:05

Yeah, it'll be fascinating to see where it all goes and to hear from you and the forefront of what you guys are doing.

17:05 - 17:39

OK, brother, let's get a little bit more personal off the subject of football. Given all that we've discussed, it's actually probably hard for our listeners to imagine that you're also a very successful TV writer. Hence, my comment about an airplane flying over your head over there in Venice Beach. For those that know where that is, it's close to an airport. I know that your gift for plot applies to many facets of your life, and in all seriousness, screenwriting is an exercise in problem solving. So how do you think about your screenwriting juxtaposed to your day job at the NFLPA? Giving away all my secrets.

17:41 - 17:59

Yeah, writing is a creative outlet that hones skills that are applicable to any job, but especially law and business. And obviously that includes the exercise of writing itself, but also thinking outside the box, to use the cliche term. When you put the two together, it's as much about time management as it is about anything else.

17:59 - 18:33

Interesting. Well, and for our listeners who may not have realized this, Sean is a lawyer by background. That's how he got into the NFLPA. And you know, he's always been a creative writer. I can remember since he was a little kid, he's the English guy and I'm the math guy. So it's amazing to see what he's doing on both ends of the spectrum with sports, innovation, data, technology, medical and then now having written and sold many TV shows. OK. Wrapping up. So, Sean, you know, we like to ask all these questions of our guests because I know you listen to our podcast so lay it on me. What's the best financial advice that you've ever received?

18:33 - 18:53

I got it easy because I just call you so perhaps my best piece of advice is call a trusted expert. I mean, similar to innovating in the athlete paradigm, you need hired professionals who have an edge in terms of research and expertise. So, yeah, call Bernstein if you need something. How's that for a pitch?

18:54 - 19:02

Hey, I'll take it. That's a great, great spot to end the show. Seann, I appreciate you taking a little bit of time and chatting with me more than you usually do on a regular day.

19:02 - 19:04

Yeah, my pleasure. You know, pick up your phone next time I call you.

19:05 - 19:39

No promises. Well, thank you all for listening. This has been The Big Stage. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to subscribe, please go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Please e-mail us with your thoughts, questions and feedback to insights@Bernstein.com and be sure to find us on Twitter and Instagram at I bet your mother had you guys, and she was like, that's enough. Yeah, well, yeah, I was eight pounds, 11 ounces. Sean was eight pounds, nine ounces. Oh my God. Are you kidding?

Host
Adam Sansiveri
Managing Director —Head of the Nashville Private Client Group and Co-Lead Sports and Entertainment Group

The information presented and opinions expressed are solely the views of the podcast host commentator and their guest speaker(s). AllianceBernstein L.P. or its affiliates makes no representations or warranties concerning the accuracy of any data. There is no guarantee that any projection, forecast or opinion in this material will be realized. Past performance does not guarantee future results. The views expressed here may change at any time after the date of this podcast. This podcast is for informational purposes only and does not constitute investment advice. AllianceBernstein L.P. does not provide tax, legal or accounting advice. It does not take an investor’s personal investment objectives or financial situation into account; investors should discuss their individual circumstances with appropriate professionals before making any decisions. This information should not be construed as sales or marketing material or an offer or solicitation for the purchase or sale of any financial instrument, product or service sponsored by AllianceBernstein or its affiliates.

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