How Gary Vaynerchuk Plans to Take Over the NFL
This digital trend-spotter and his brother AJ are taking their success with Fortune 500 companies to the world of sports.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because sports representation is ripe for disruption.
Teenage fans scream their names from the stands, but the Vaynerchuks aren’t NFL linebackers. Hell, they’re not even owners (yet). They’re just two Jets superfans out to disrupt professional sports representation one athlete at a time.
Last fall, Gary Vaynerchuk and his younger brother AJ, co-founders of the digital media marketing agency VaynerMedia, partnered with the boutique sports representation agency Symmetry. In truth, they absorbed it, rebranding the company VaynerSports and announcing lofty goals to disrupt the cozy sports agency market. Their plan? Help forward-thinking athletes grow and leverage social media followings to create “nontraditional branding opportunities,” AJ Vaynerchuck tells OZY. In other words, VaynerSports wants to change the way athletes do business — and who they do it with — just as Gary, a powerful social media influencer, and AJ have done for Fortune 500 companies.
If you don’t have outside interests and aspirations to build a career after football, we’re probably not the right fit.
“Clearly, football has to be the primary focus for any NFL athlete,” says AJ Vaynerchuk, “but if you don’t have outside interests and aspirations to build a career after football, we’re probably not the right fit.”
Therein lies the crux of VaynerSports’ pitch to prospective clients. They’re not another run-of-the-mill agency hoping to recoup contract fees, they say, and they’re not some industry giant with 100 athletes on the roster and little time for more than a few. No agency, they say, is as equipped to help an athlete build sustainable long-term brand success as VaynerSports.
But disrupting a market doesn’t come without pushback and replication. Continued growth in the space will undoubtedly attract attention, and bigger firms — like Wasserman, CAA and WME-IMG — could wake up to the enticing media opportunities that Vaynerchuk clients have already seized. But according to Tom Richardson, a sports-industry veteran who teaches digital media at Columbia University’s sports management graduate program, the Vaynerchuks’ audacious nature is the X-factor. “Disrupters are winning the day in tons of industries,” says Richardson. “Large companies have the capability to do these things, but it’s often the disrupters who are fearless and take the first step.”
Still another issue to consider when contemplating potential potholes on Vayner Way is the broadening exposure of these athletes. At present, sports is one of the few remaining arenas in which influencers, at the very least, evoke authenticity. The more eyeballs the better, industry folks will say, but when a gritty nose tackle starts Instagramming daily Fendi advertisements, or an upstart quarterback posts regular plugs for Muscle Milk, will their value get diluted, their core audience disillusioned? The brandification of athletes is not about to stop, but VaynerSports must balance the aggressive marketing tactics that have served their parent company well while finding ways to humanize their genetically gifted clients.
Surprisingly, the Vaynerchuks didn’t have much interest in sports representation prior to 2015. Granted, the New Jersey natives were die-hard New York Jets fans, but one particular September Sunday at MetLife Stadium — and the Vaynerchuk tradition of wearing obscure jerseys — changed everything. A photograph of Gary in a Walter Powell jersey made the rounds on Twitter, catching the eye of Powell’s agents, Symmetry’s Brian McLaughlin and Mook Williams. “Walt is a very good player but at that point in his career, he was still much lesser known,” says AJ Vaynerchuk. “It was very serendipitous.”
McLaughlin and Williams had formed Symmetry straight out of law school, building a small, robust shop, but it was time to bump it up. “We needed to grow in order to compete against these massive companies with a 20-year head start,” says McLaughlin. After a friendly exchange about the Powell jersey, McLaughlin did some research and found that Gary had 1.5 million Twitter followers. “I believe each of us has one or two light bulb moments in our life,” McLaughlin says. “That was mine.”
Soon, McLaughlin was “cold emailing,” as AJ Vaynerchuk puts it, to inquire about the brothers’ interest in the sports business. Turns out AJ was on hiatus: “The original plan was to take a year off,” says Vaynerchuk, who was hunting for a new challenge after growing VaynerMedia into an 800-plus-person company. “If I was full steam ahead, we never would have considered the distraction of taking on a sports agency.”
— Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyvee) September 3, 2015
As co-founders, Gary and AJ operate as strategic partners, leveraging their impressive business partners — Pepsi, Toyota, Chase, to name a few — to create opportunities for clients and serving as mentors. Professional athletes “appreciate the advice of proven businessmen,” says Justin Giangrande, executive vice president at VaynerSports. “We treat the player’s brand like a Fortune 500 company,” he adds. “We’re thinking about their short-term and long-term market. … Where can their brand end up in 10 years?” Tennessee Titans linebacker Derrick Morgan is a winning example of this holistic approach. Off the field, the NFL veteran is working toward an MBA; has founded Huddle Ventures, which helps athletes monetize their social followings (sound familiar?); and is an active angel investor in the tech space. “We provide our clients a business partner for life,” says Giangrande, “rather than just worrying about a contract.”
And this July, the VaynerSports team got even more dynamic. The addition of 17-year NFL agent and former player Tommy Sims brings in a seasoned veteran with deep industry connections and recruitment expertise. The decision to leave the more established A3 Athletics, Sims says, was about staying ahead of the game. “Nowadays, by the time players leave college, they already have branded logos and huge [social] followings,” says Sims. “They want to know, ‘How can I monetize this? How can I dominate e-commerce?’ Well, Gary and AJ already dominate that space.”
So far, the early feedback has been positive. Morgan and Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis are two of the league’s best at their respective positions, and in Houston Texans second year receiver Braxton Miller, the agency has a promising talent with huge upside. Popular Pittsburgh Steelers punter Jordan Berry has switched to the agency and two other promising young talents reportedly signing on in the coming weeks. The next goal? Represent a first-round pick on draft night. “I can’t wait to be in that greenroom,” says Sims.
But as other sports-representation giants catch on to what VaynerSports already knows, the ability to stay connected with an up-and-coming client base will be crucial. “[Gary and AJ] have been better trend-spotters than most,” Sims tells OZY. “To the extent they can maintain a management team with modern sensibilities that connects with the athletes, they’ll remain ahead of the curve.”
In other words, VaynerSports needs to stay woke.