But the company's 20% transaction fee on the personal appearances of ex-athletes (often totaling just few hundred or thousand dollars) wasn't exactly paying the freight. Mr. Barber said he's having more success marketing Thuzio as a business-to-business play to corporate America than with sports consumers.
According to Thuzio, a growing number of ad agencies and corporate clients (including PepsiCo, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Yahoo and Conde Nast) have booked its athletes, coaches and sports figures to make corporate appearances, host golf outings, sign autographs, deliver speeches or just tell tall tales of their playing days.
When the Reebok Spartan Race, for example, was looking to get some media coverage in the shadow of the more well-known Tough Mudder, it hired Barber and ex-New England Patriots running back Kevin Faulk to run the race and tweet about their experiences. The cost was only $7,000. But ESPN covered the participation of the two former NFL stars in its Top 10 Plays of the Day. Ad agencies started calling the next day.
There's a never-ending supply of former athletes and coaches looking to keep their profile up and make a few bucks on the side. Under Thuzio's model, they get to set their own appearance prices -- and pick the activities they want to engage in. The client list keeps growing.
Among the most popular new personalities: ex-New York Yankees pitcher Roger Clemens; former New York Knicks star Bernard King; Dallas Cowboys legend Tony Dorsett; and Super Bowl winning coach Brian Billick.
Mr. Clemens, for example, costs $45,000 for a one-hour speaking engagement or $20,000 for a round of golf. That's a lot for even the richest baseball fan – but chump change for a Fortune 500 firm looking to impress key clients.
About 75% of Thuzio's clients are retired jocks; 25% are current athletes. But it's often the forgotten players from the 1970s, 80's and 90's who can be the "bread and butter," said Thuzio CEO Jared Augustine.
"Nostalgia is very important, perhaps under-rated, as it relates to brands and experiences in general. We think Thuzio gives you a cost-effective way of tapping into that nostalgia for those heroes you had growing up," said Mr. Augustine.
Take former Giants quarterback Scott Brunner. Old-line Giants fans will remember Bill Parcells picking the now forgotten QB over future Super Bowl MVP Phil Simms to start the 1983 season. But Mr. Brunner (a personal QB coach), can also share stories about grooming this year's Super Bowl-winning QB for the NFL: Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens.
With corporate holiday parties coming up, and Super Bowl XLVIII coming to MetLife Stadium on Feb. 2, we asked Mr. Barber (who also has a morning show on CBS Sports Radio) about his New York-based startup which marked its first anniversary in September. Excerpts:
Ad Age: Are you getting more business due to Super Bowl coming to New York/New Jersey for first time?
Tiki Barber: We started to see incoming requests for Super Bowl as early as mid-September and we expect the bookings to continue right up until the game itself…Some of our more unique Super Bowl related bookings include; a brunch with Phil Simms at an executive's home on Super Bowl Sunday before they head to the game, a private roundtable discussion at a popular New York steakhouse with Brian Billick and Super Bowl 'Game Watches' at a private home or a rented venue where a current or former pro athlete watches the game with you and your guests.
Ad Age: Are you rebranding Thuzio as more of B2B than a consumer play?
Mr. Barber: Exactly. We're becoming a B2B play. We realize there's a huge market for tapping into your client's passion. And finding a way to engage them in a way they've never been engaged before...We found out very quickly that 65% of our clients are corporations, not individuals. They're looking for differentiated ways to entertain clients, retain clients, acquire clients. Thuzio provides an alternative toward the commodity of going to a Yankees game.
Ad Age: What exactly do marketers hire Thuzio talent for?
Mr. Barber: Golf outings. Conventions. Corporate speaking engagements. These are things that have been around forever. But there's never been a way to easily access the talent. At least without knowing somebody or knowing their agent. We've taken all of that market – and put into an ecommerce marketplace which is unique.
Ad Age: What are the price ranges?
Mr. Barber: We have a coaching product that's as low as $150 for an hour of coaching for your kid. Or even if you just want to learn how to throw a football. Because I'll always maintain that 85% of the population in this country doesn't know how to throw a football. So (prices) can range from $150 to $5,000 or $10,000, depending on the talent level. We've been fortunate to get some current (athletes) who see it as an opportunity to expand their opportunities. They can have an agent -- because we're non-exclusive. But there's people who won't see them, or don't know how to get to them, that may see them because they're on Thuzio and have their own digital marketing platform.
Ad Age: What talent is most popular?
Mr. Barber: Obviously, I was at the very beginning because I was the guinea pig. The challenge that we had was there was zero understanding of the market forces. What would someone pay to play flag football with Tiki Barber? It had never been done. So we had to figure out the market forces, the supply and demand…Over time, we started to get some market knowledge about what people were willing to pay, both individuals and corporations, for these types of experiences.
Ad Age: Any stories about your experiences with customers?
Mr. Barber: A woman bought flag football with me for her son and her husband. I had done four or five of them. Mostly with 10-year old kids, having fun, throwing a ball around. So I get to this woman's house in Queens and say, 'Where are we going to play?' She says there's a football field down the street. So I go this place and there's like 20 guys there, 20-40 years old, who do this every weekend. They're in great shape. They're putting on their cleats and wristbands…Luckily, I had a pair of cleats in my trunk. So we went out and played. I'll tell you that was the sorest I've been in maybe five years. They were going at it. The team I was on actually lost. They had a lefty QB who was throwing bombs all over the place. It was fun. But it was surprising. You never know what you're going to get when you have these kinds of experiences.
Ad Age: How many former athletes, coaches and entertainers do you have?
Mr. Barber: We just went over 1,000. We're on our way to being the largest aggregation of talent in the world. Which is kind of cool…What we're really doing is finding ways to empower talent, most of them are athletes now, to book themselves for different kinds of engagements locally. So they're not traveling. It's convenient for them. And there's price transparency. So the customer, whether it's an individual or a corporation, knows exactly what they're getting for exactly what they're paying for.
Ad Age: Are you doing any advertising?
Mr. Barber: We haven't done any traditional advertising yet. But we do a lot of PR...We're getting our talent on-air. Because it's basically their own digital marketplace, right? So we're encouraging them to get out and speak about it…We're relying on word-of-mouth. And knocking on doors.