SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Forty Under 40

Clay Walker

CLAY WALKER, PLAYERS INC.

BY LIZ MULLEN
STAFF WRITER

Clay Walker has a big job ahead of him this year.

Clay Walker
• Age: 39
• Title: Senior vice president
• Company: Players Inc.
• Education: B.A., East Carolina University; MBA, Colorado State University; M.S., labor relations, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
• Family: Wife, Anne; children, Davis, 4, and Caroline, 2
• Career: Started out covering licensing issues for a trading card magazine; has been with the NFL Players Association and Players Inc. for the last 12 years.
• Last vacation: Bald Head Island, N.C.
• Last book read: "All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror" by Stephen Kinzer
• Last movie seen: "Polar Express"
• Greatest achievement: My wife and kids
• Greatest disappointment: Not being able to play four years of college football because of injuries
• Fantasy job: Athletic director
• Executives most admired: Gene Upshaw and Paul Tagliabue. Their shared vision is primarily responsible for the overall success of the NFL.
• Business advice: Never give up on your passions.
About 12 months from now, the NFL Players Association’s deals with 15 fantasy football licensees will expire. That will give Walker, the senior vice president of the union’s marketing arm, Players Inc., a chance to streamline and simplify what he now sees as a confusing marketplace.

Like the NFL itself, Players Inc. has been signing more exclusive deals with companies — for instance, Reebok for apparel and EA Sports for video games — because such agreements are bringing in significantly higher revenue than many deals that aren’t exclusive.

When it comes to fantasy football, though, Walker will have to work carefully. Not only has that part of the industry turned into big business for the NFLPA, but Walker himself was one of the first to see its potential. He’s nurtured the business for a decade, and he doesn’t want to do anything to stifle it — by, for example, cutting off too many fans from their favorite fantasy game.

“We will end up with a number of key partners,” he said, “but we will cut it down from 15 to five or six.”

Working out a big deal for Players Inc. isn’t new to Walker.

Last year, he was the lead negotiator on the union’s reported five-year, $300 million deal to make EA Sports the exclusive licensee for video games that use NFL player names and likenesses.

“He was really my counterpart,” said Joel Linzner, senior vice president of legal and business affairs for EA Sports, who led the company’s negotiations on the deal.

Linzner said Walker has a straightforward style and worked to attain EA’s goals, as well as those of the NFLPA.

“The thing that Clay understands well is that video games is not like some other sponsorship,” Linzner said. “Video games increase the goodwill of the property.”

Walker first met NFLPA Executive Director Gene Upshaw and Players Inc. COO Pat Allen in the early 1990s, when he was working as a reporter at a trading card magazine. At the time, the NFLPA was decertified as a union and was operating as a trade organization. Those days were tough ones for the NFLPA. The NFL had employed a strategy of signing players to its own licensing agreements, denying the association any money from licensing.

Walker covered the battle between the NFL and NFLPA, which, at the time, hurt the value of NFL player trading cards. When the NFLPA recertified as a union in 1993, the NFL no longer could do its own licensing deals for players, and Walker was hired by the NFLPA as an assistant director of licensing in its newly created licensing department, which later became Players Inc.

Now, Walker manages licensing for trading cards and collectibles, apparel and multimedia. He also manages the communications and Internet departments, in all overseeing about a dozen employees.

Walker is “very detail oriented,” said Allen, “but he is a great communicator.”

Chris Russo, the NFL’s senior vice president of new media and publishing, said Walker “was an advocate of fantasy football before it became vogue. A number of years ago, [he] saw the potential.”

Russo remembers his first meeting with Walker five years ago. “His personal issue was fantasy football,” Russo said, “and when is the league going to get involved with fantasy football?”

Russo said that because of Walker’s passion and the quick start the NFLPA got on licensing fantasy football games, football has three times the following of any other fantasy sports game. That, in turn, is good for business overall, as the NFL has found that fantasy players spend many more hours a week watching NFL games than do fans who don’t participate in fantasy leagues.

“He is always looking at areas of growth,” Allen said. “Fantasy football is a perfect example. That is an area of business he really has been involved in the growth and creation of.”

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