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VOL. 40 | NO. 34 | Friday, August 19, 2016

Marketing Mariota

Can Alan Zucker do for Titans QB what he’s done for Mannings, Taylor Swift & Danica Patrick?

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As an NFL quarterback, Sunday is show time for Marcus Mariota. That’s when he suits up and does everything in his power to help the Tennessee Titans win football games.

But a recent Sunday morning was a different kind of show time. Mariota spent four hours on the opposite side of the Cumberland River from Nissan Stadium on a commercial shoot. A camera crew captured footage of him jogging in downtown Nashville and posing in front of various landmarks.

He then went to a studio in East Nashville and recorded voice-overs to be used in the commercials.

It’s a new playbook for Mariota. And as comfortable as he is on a football field, he’s still finding his way in the world of endorsements and commercial shoots. The marketing of Marcus Mariota is a work in progress.

Although the Titans have been judicious in their use of Mariota as the “face of the franchise,” he is front and center in advertisements for season ticket sales. Highlights of his 87-yard touchdown scramble against Jacksonville last season are featured in a TV commercial.

But the Titans have no real control of Mariota’s venture into the world of endorsements. On the field, he is all Titan. Off the field, he is an independent contractor like every other NFL player.

Zucker

This is where Alan Zucker comes in.

Less than a month after his final college game at the University of Oregon, Mariota and his parents, Toa and Alana, chose Zucker over a bevy of other agents to represent him in the commercial and endorsement marketplace.

It is Zucker’s job to build Mariota’s brand and establish partnerships with companies that can be as diverse as athletic equipment makers to restaurant chains. Zucker is the conduit between Mariota and world of commercial endorsements, keeping in mind that the young quarterback embodies certain core values that cannot be compromised.

“Not every player is marketable. In fact, there are only a handful of talents each year that make sense for me to represent,” says Zucker, one of four partners in Excel Sports Management, a New York-based firm that ranks among the international leaders in representing athletes.

“I’d rather have the upper echelon, the cream of the crop, the best of the best. Others have a different philosophy and sign 10 or 20 players and see who rises to the top. For me, it’s different. In Marcus’ year, it was Marcus or bust. If I didn’t get Marcus, I didn’t get a talent that year.”

There are limits when it comes to advertising. By league rule, NFL players are not permitted to endorse alcohol or tobacco products, so don’t expect to see Mariota riding a Budweiser Clydesdale and puffing on a Marlboro in a Super Bowl commercial.

But that wouldn’t happen, even without the NFL-mandated restrictions. Beer and cigarettes don’t mesh with Mariota’s squeaky-clean image. Zucker keeps that in mind as he pursues different ventures.

“With Marcus, it’s all about faith, football and family,” Zucker says. “Those are the three most important things for him. We make sure that everything we do is always balanced and will have the highest integrity.

“The No. 1 objective, at least from my perspective, is making sure that he looks good. Second is driving revenue. That’s why I’m here. And lastly, it is to help him give back to his community that he lives in now, and the University of Oregon, and also the islands of Hawaii.”

Unlike many NFL players, Mariota has two agents – one for the negotiation of his contract with the Titans and one for off-field endeavors.

Mariota signed with Zucker a month before selecting an agent to represent him in contract negotiations. He ultimately picked Rep 1 Sports as his football agent.

The Irvine, California-based agency, which also represents quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Blake Bortles of the Jaguars, is run by brothers Bruce and Ryan Tollner.

With Mariota as the second player picked in the 2015 NFL draft, Rep 1 Sports negotiated a four-year, $24.2 million contract with a fifth-year option that the Titans can exercise. As for generating revenue from off-field opportunities, that’s Zucker’s job.

It looks like a good fit. The two appear at ease with each other. Zucker jokes that he’s comfortable working in a supporting role with athletes because he was a student manager at Florida State in the late-’80s.

Indeed, if you check out a team picture of the 1987 Seminoles, there is Zucker on the sixth row standing next to Magdi El Shahawy. El Shahawy was a redshirt freshman defensive lineman at the time. These days, he’s senior associate athletics director at Southern Cal.

Maybe his experience as an equipment manager at Florida State is why Zucker was in his element handing a towel to Mariota during a break in the recent commercial shoot. He’s comfortable whether he’s standing on the sideline of an NFL practice field or sitting at a table in a Manhattan board room.

Zucker “has no ego” and is “the antithesis of the Tom Cruise character in Jerry Maguire,” says Mark Dyer, senior vice president for IMG College, a division of IMG Worldwide, which works with 73 college athletics programs, including Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

“Alan is genuine and sincere,” says Dyer, who grew up in Madison and once worked with Zucker at IMG. “He wants clients who are stellar people. His clients are with him for life.

“Marcus Mariota has a chance to be the cornerstone of that franchise for the next decade, and he was smart enough to get the gold standard of representation in Alan Zucker.”

Marcus Mariota walks down Church Street with a film crew in tow during the recent filming of a commercial for Saint Thomas Health.

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Among Zucker’s clients at Excel Sports: Peyton and Eli Manning, Joe Montana, Jim Nantz and Danica Patrick. Zucker also represents a non-sports personality with a strong Nashville connection – Taylor Swift.

“I don’t really call myself an agent,” Zucker points out. “I call myself more of a marketing manager. That’s what we do. … Every talent is completely different so every approach is unique.”

When it comes to endorsements, Mariota plays the right position. Quarterbacks dominate the game. The most important position on the field is also the most lucrative off it.

Drew Brees (Wrangler, Verizon), Aaron Rodgers (State Farm, Ford) Eli Manning (Toyota, DirecTV), Russell Wilson (Microsoft, Braun), Tom Brady (Under Armour, Tag Heuer) and Tony Romo (DirecTV, Pizza Hut) pull in big endorsement bucks.

And then there is Peyton Manning.

He’s in a league of his own. In his final year as an NFL player in 2015, Manning pocketed $12 million in endorsements, according to Forbes. He was the preferred face in commercials for Nationwide, Buick, Papa John’s, Gatorade and DirecTV.

Even in retirement, Manning continues to make big plays. Wearing a robe, his “Peyton On Sunday Mornings” bit with Lionel Richie for DirecTV is a touchdown.

“He’s a pro. He’s been doing it for 18 years,” Zucker adds. “Sarcasm, comedy, self-deprecation – it all comes very easily to him. There’s not a script Peyton can’t figure out in five or six takes.”

Mariota isn’t there yet. Because of his upbringing and his personality, he is not overly comfortable in front of a camera, whether it is in post-game interviews or commercial shoots. The Polynesian culture emphasizes the greater good of the whole, not the glory of the individual. Mariota is cordial and sincere but prefers not to draw attention to himself.

As the Heisman Trophy winner in 2014, Mariota got a head start in the endorsement game. With Nike founder Phil Knight’s involvement at Oregon, Mariota’s affiliation with the sports footwear and workout gear/apparel giant was a given. Nissan, Apple and Subway, among others, also put endorsement deals in front of him.

Moving forward, however, things are different. The initial buzz has faded. In order to be pursued by national/international companies as a spokesman, Mariota must establish himself as a top-tier NFL quarterback. It is the reality of the endorsement business.

“In the end, it all comes down to what I call ‘credible attitude,’” Zucker says.

“If you are not credible on the field, it doesn’t matter how great you are off of it. There’s only a handful of talent that can make money and build a brand.”

For now, the endorsement deals are fairly limited. Saint Thomas Health, a founding sponsor of the Titans, is the only local business that has signed Mariota to a sponsorship contract. Back home in Hawaii, he has business relationships with Island Insurance and First Hawaiian Bank. He also has a deal with Beats by Dre headphones.

“We look at a number of things, including electronics,” Zucker adds. “He’s into video games. He does wear Beats headphones so that was a natural fit. We try to find organizations that he’s comfortable with.

“The goal is to drive revenue while making sure that’s not his main focus. His main focus is to be the best quarterback he can possibly be for the Tennessee Titans. Everything revolves around that.”

The recent commercial shoot in downtown Nashville was for Saint Thomas Health, a faith-based, not-for-profit collection of hospitals and physician practices in Tennessee.

Saint Thomas Health, which is a founding sponsor of the Titans, announced last October it had signed Mariota to a contract for appearances at various events as well as television and print advertisements. As part of the deal, Saint Thomas Health also has a relationship with Motiv8, Mariota’s foundation.

Karen Springer, president and CEO of Saint Thomas Health, says the organization “evaluates our partnerships carefully” and only pursues relationships that “share common values.”

“When the Titans drafted Marcus, we had the opportunity to meet him and his family and were immediately impressed by their commitment to family, faith and community service, in addition to football,” Springer explains.

It is a good fit. And if his NFL career takes off as many expect, there will be more commercial shoots and more off-field exposure.

The marketing of Marcus Mariota is just beginning.

David Climer can be reached at dclimer1018@yahoo.com and on Twitter @DavidClimer.