Uber Inks Its First Sports Deal, Partners With The NFL To Promote Safe Rides For Pro Footballers

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Fresh from a $258 million investment led by Google Ventures and TPG, tech-powered transportation service Uber today is announcing a key deal that speaks to a few ways that it’s hoping to grow in the future. Uber is partnering with the NFL Players Association to produce a special service for NFL players to use the app to call for rides and avoid driving under the influence.

The deal — Uber’s first with a professional sports organization — speaks to how Uber is positioning itself for its next stage of appealing to a more mainstream audience beyond the service’s early adopters. It’s also a sign of how we may see the startup striking more partnerships like this in the future with enterprises.

And it’s also an interesting marketing turn for the company as a publicly-minded service, positioning itself as the “safe” alternative for transport. It’s the last of these that was the primary talking point in a press call about the partnership.

“We made the decision to partner with Uber for player safety and community safety,” DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA Executive Director, told journalists today. “The opportunity brought state of the art technology to keeping our players safe.”

He went on to acknowledge that offering a way of getting players home when they were drunk wasn’t really tackling the main issue of drinking too much. In the NFL, since 2006, driving under the influence of alchohol (and possibly more) has cost NFL players $5.3 million according to the New York Times — $2.4 million in fines and $2.9 million in salary. In the worst case scenarios, players have died from related accidents.

“In our world, we know that discipline plays a part in changing behavior,” Smith continued, but in addition to trying to encourage athletes to simply stay sober, the NFLPA was “treating this as a public health and public safety challenge. We believe this partnership meets that.”

Travis Kalanick, the CEO and co-founder of Uber, noted that it’s the convenience that will make the most difference. “It’s game changing if a player can pull out the app and press a button to get a car,” he noted (I don’t think the sports pun was intentional). As with the normal Uber service, users don’t have to provide any other details for the car to arrive — making this a degree easier than car services that need you to provide other details in order to get a car to you.

As part of the deal, players are getting $200 in free credits to use the app, but for now it won’t be completely ubiquitous across the whole of the NFL league footprint. Uber is currently active in 17 of the 31 cities that have NFL teams. Kalanick noted that this will significantly expand by Q1 of next year, although there have been some notable holdouts like Houston and Miami because of ongoing fights between Uber and incumbent local taxi organizations. “There are some that are waiting for changes on the regulatory side,” Kalanick noted tersely today. Worldwide, Uber is now in 40 cities.

Although today’s media call emphasized safety and the service for athletes, it’s likely that Uber may use it for wider promotional purposes around sporting events: “We wanted to partner with a company that could not only provide a service but also provide a technology and messaging platform that makes it easy to promote responsibility to our players and fans,” noted NFLPA player representative Zak DeOssie of the New York Giants in a statement (emphasis mine).

On the enterprise side, this is something to watch for too. Uber says the NFLPA is “just the beginning” of how it plans to work with sports leagues “and any other entities that embody our shared values.” Before this, Uber had already worked with some individual teams like the San Francisco Giants and individual athletes as part of its marketing outreach, but this is the first time it’s inked a longer-term partnership.

“I’d say a lot of our customers happen to be NFL players but there are a whole lot more who could and should be using us,” an Uber spokesperson told me earlier today.