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Former Lions WR Calvin Johnson is back in the locker room — this time with his cannabis company

Primitiv received its NSF certification for its topical CBD cream on April 15 and announced its partnership with the Detroit Tigers on May 3.

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This story was republished with permission from Crain’s Detroit and written by Dustin Walsh

When Calvin Johnson Jr. retired from the Detroit Lions in 2016, he couldn’t wait to get out of the locker room. He shocked the sports world by leaving the NFL in his prime at just 30 years old — he would become a first-ballot Hall of Fame selection in 2021 — but the injuries and pain were nearly constant.

Eight years later, though, Johnson wants to return.

Not to the game, but the locker room … with his Webberville-based cannabis company Primitiv.

The company Johnson co-founded with Rob Sims, a former Detroit Lions offensive guard, has inked two marketing deals recently with Ford Field and the Detroit Tigers with plans to make their Primitiv Performance CDB topical cream products in the same lexicon with other locker-room products like Biofreeze and Body Armor sports drink.

“We always used lots of topicals in the locker room, but there was never this healing component,” Johnson said, rubbing his knees, both of which he suffered ACL sprains and pulls during his football career. “Athletes want this stuff, but they also don’t want to get popped (fail a drug test), so we saw an opportunity to create a new product and new application with a perfect alternative to what’s in the locker rooms now.”

A product combine

Johnson and Sims founded Primitiv to capitalize on Michigan’s burgeoning cannabis industry, as both turned to marijuana to treat aches and pains from their playing careers as an alternative to prescription opioids.

Primitiv opened a modest 4,000-square-foot cultivation facility in Webberville, in 2019 and followed with a dispensary in Niles, about five miles north of the Indiana border, in May 2022. The group also operates a single dispensary in Massachusetts.

While the duo have a passion for THC-based marijuana, it’s the company’s performance topical cream and hydration powders that Sims expects to make the company a locker room name, if not a household name.

“THC was our foundation and allowed us to get into the market, but Primitiv Performance will be the big thing for us,” Sims said. “This is the one that puts us on the map. When we launched we had a lot of press because of Calvin, but we didn’t have a real product to sell. We do now and we’re getting ready to dig in.”

Primitiv inked the deal with Ford Field in March, but it still needed a scientific stamp of approval to penetrate the big leagues.

For more than 12 months, the company worked to get its CBD topical transdermal cream “Certified for Sport” by Ann Arbor-based product testing organization NSF International.

NSF, which was spun out of the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health 80 years ago, tests and certifies supplements for many professional sports leagues. In fact, MLB, NHL and the Canadian Football League require that only supplements holding NSF certification are allowed in locker rooms.

The certification by NSF validates that the product is consistent and does not contain banned performance-enhancing substances.

Primitiv received its NSF certification on April 15 and announced its partnership with the Detroit Tigers on May 3. Its topical cream contains 1,500 MG of minor cannabinoids ­— compounds found in cannabis that often have therapeutic uses but don’t get the user high —  and are used to fight inflammation and other common pains from sports, Johnson said.

Tigers players can use the product without the threat of failing a league drug test.

Johnson said upwards of 10 teams, including a local professional sports team, have reached out since the Tigers announcement about potential partnerships and products in the locker room.

Wagering weed

But these major league deals aren’t lucrative up front for Primitiv, which by many standards in Michigan’s cannabis industry is small with just 80 employees. The state’s largest cannabis operator Lume Cannabis Co., which Crain Communications CEO KC Crain is an investor, has roughly 1,000 employees.

The deals to get Primitiv’s cream into the locker room are, in fact, marketing deals: pay to play. Primitiv pays to get its name on the digital signage throughout Comerica Park and ads run on the TVs in the concourse and in the suites for a total of 15 minutes throughout a game.

“We built this for athletes, bringing it to the athletes,” Sims said. “The lucrative part comes later. We’re creating a new product class.”

Mike Dietz, president of Farmington Hills-based sports and entertainment management firm Dietz Sports & Entertainment, said few other avenues than sports marketing provide greater brand recognition abilities. Tying your brand to a successful team or passionate fan base can pay dividends in the long run.

“For a new and emerging brand like Primitiv, sports marketing tied to a professional team is a great way to build brand awareness and grow sales,” Dietz said. “One of the key strengths of sports marketing is brand recognition to a large and passionate audience. Having your product in the locker room would be an added bonus to the marketing partnership.”

Two other MLB teams have similar deals. The St. Louis Cardinals have a marketing deal with Pure Spectrum CDB and the Chicago Cubs with CDB sparkling beverage brand Mynd Drinks. The MLB itself also has a CBD deal with Charlotte’s Web Holdings, one of the largest hemp-derived CBD companies in the country.

But these deals aren’t easy to score either. Having a Hall of Fame wide receiver and known guard lead the team opens up doors, said Sims.

“We do show up with credibility,” Sims said. “Our former world had us in those locker rooms. We know what the players want. But a brand can only get you so far. You have to perform.”

Primitiv is waiting out to see how well its cream product does in the sports world before seeking NSF certification of its hydration powder line, which also contains CBD.

However, its THC roots are what it’s really waiting to get into locker rooms, if federal legalization ever occurs and/or leagues become more accepting of marijuana as a whole, Johnson said.

“This is just the beginning; we want to make all our performance products THC,” Johnson said. “This is overall a small part of the business right now, but going forward we want THC to be more accepted and for leagues and athletes to acknowledge its abilities.”


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