When Robert Griffin III entered the NFL in 2012, everyone wanted a piece of him. Electronic Arts put the Heisman Trophy winner on the cover of its “NCAA Football” video game. Subway and Adidas signed the quarterback to endorsement deals. His No. 10 Washington Redskins jersey sold more than any other player’s in recent history. The Associated Press voted Griffin the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
And then there were the passersby, everyday folks eager to seize on a chance encounter with a sports celebrity. Oftentimes, they’d bring out their phones.
“They ask you to say, 'Hey, can you say hi to my mom?' ” he recalled recently. “Or I’d get a lot of phone calls, and I'm on the phone with their aunt or something.”
As the Ravens backup quarterback’s place in the NFL has changed, so have the levers of fan engagement. Instagram, the most popular social media network after Facebook, reached 1 billion monthly users last year. Twitter had 330 million active as of September. Athlete accounts have become as intertwined with the fan experience as YouTube highlights. You can’t truly know a backup linebacker until you’ve seen him flexing mid-workout on his Instagram Story.
Across the NFL and wider world of sports, another platform has found an audience. Ten current Ravens and several former stars have active accounts on Cameo, an application that lets users purchase personalized shout-outs for friends and family from a growing roster of talent. Cameo CEO and co-founder Steven Galanis called the service “the new autograph.” Except, instead of a signature, it’s a “Happy birthday” message. Or a from-the-heart pep talk. Or a fantasy football jab.
“One thing we hear all the time is that fans no longer are really looking for autographs,” Galanis said in an interview Tuesday. “They always want selfies, and if selfies are the new autograph, Cameo’s just simply the way for a fan to get a selfie with their favorite player when they’re not actually with them. It enables them to take an on-demand selfie, essentially, which we’ve found to be really powerful.”
The NFL is central to Cameo’s origin story. Inspiration struck while Galanis and another co-founder, Martin Blencowe, were driving home from a funeral for Galanis’ grandmother in 2016. Blencowe, then an NFL agent, had gotten one of his clients, then-Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cassius Marsh, to record a video for one of Blencowe’s friends, congratulating him on the birth of his son.
Galanis watched the short video from Marsh. Then Blencowe showed him his friend’s reaction; he’d called the shout-out the best gift he’d ever received. Galanis and Blencowe partnered with former Vine star Devon Townsend and in 2017 launched Cameo. Marsh, one of four professional athletes signed on, made the first video.
Over 400,000 videos have been produced since, according to a company spokesman, and Galanis said their collection of talent — its “celebrities” range from supporting actors in NBC’s “The Office” to reality TV and YouTube stars to “Friday” singer Rebecca Black — now numbers 20,000. He said he believes Cameo’s talent market could grow to support over 5 million people worldwide.
That figure probably accounts for every NFL player, past and present. Ray Lewis is on the platform. So is Justin Bethel. Of course, it costs $300 to book a wedding anniversary message from the Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker and $10 for the former Ravens special teams standout to wish someone a happy Father’s Day.
In that way, Cameo’s marketplace for talent reflects the NFL’s. While celebrities on the website can determine their own rates, they are not immune to market forces. Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley remembered once setting his price at $25. “And then I was like, 'OK, [shoot], no one’s biting on this price, so let me take it down to, like, $20.’ And that’s what it’s been for a while now.”
For NFL players, the payoff — 75% of every booking — amounts to pocket change. Wormley’s earnings might go to a date-night budget. Griffin’s might pay for a new pair of shoes.
But for the time it takes to read from a suggested script and film a short video, it’s “more than Uber drivers get,” running back Justice Hill said. “And you don't got to do as much as work.” It’s a gig-economy service — not every request needs to be fulfilled, and in fact some, Griffin said, are too “crazy” to accept. (No, he will not bad-mouth anyone, not even if they play for the Cleveland Browns.)
Ravens players said they almost never know the fans making Cameo requests. “It’s just random folks,” cornerback and returner Cyrus Jones (Gilman) said. By now, though, they know what to expect.
Hill estimated that 70% of his shout-outs are fantasy football-related. Griffin said he notices an uptick in requests around the holidays. Fullback and defensive lineman Patrick Ricard said he mostly wishes strangers a happy birthday. (Quarterback Lamar Jackson, who’s inactive during the season, capped one congratulatory bar mitzvah message with a “Mazel tov!”)
Ravens QB Lamar Jackson wishes a fan congrats on his bar mitzvah on Cameo, a platform that lets users purchase personalized shout-outs from celebrities.
“It’s funny because people at home make fun of me — like, my mom,” Ricard said. “She’s like, ‘Oh, you’re doing videos for money or something?’ I’m like, ‘It’s nothing.’ ”
Galanis said Cameo allows athletes to capitalize on “this really short period of time where they're going to make almost all the money they make in their whole lives.” Others regard the monetization of celebrity more cynically.
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David L. Andrews, a professor of physical cultural studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, has lived in Baltimore for 18 years. In that time, he’s absorbed the legend of former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, how one of the NFL’s greatest-ever players never turned down an autograph request from anyone.
Now, Andrews said, there are memorabilia conventions where athletes are paid by the autograph. The “American model” for sports, he said, ruthlessly monetizes fans’ emotional investments in players and teams. He warned that with the increased commercialization of “our sporting obsessions,” it is indeed possible to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
“I love the Ravens and watching Lamar ... but come on, you know?”
At $200 per booking, Griffin has the steepest Cameo rate among current Ravens. He acknowledged that he probably wouldn’t have been able to afford the requests as a kid, when he was growing up in a military family. “But it would’ve been something that would’ve been cool,” he said.