The B/R Interview: Brandon Steiner
Brandon Steiner is the CEO of Steiner Sports Marketing Inc., one of the largest sports marketing and memorabilia companies in the United States. He has paired together thousands of athletes and companies using sports as a marketing tool to reach audiences and is the leading producer of authentic hand-signed collectibles.
I arrived at the Steiner Sports headquarters in New Rochelle, NY and had a chance to admire the signed photographs featuring Steiner’s roster of athletes before being led into a large glass-encased office where I was met by Brandon Steiner himself. The following contains excerpts from the interview that day...
BS: What the hell are you going to interview me about today that's going to make this story different than the other fifteen hundred other stories that I've either commented on or have been done on me?
MT: Well, I want the theme of this interview to be—
BS: Hold on one second.
Steiner gets up from his desk and walks over to the door of his office where he begins chatting with a man in a New York Yankees cap who was delivering framed autographed photographs featuring Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
I sat in Steiner’s office looking at the various pictures, sports memorabilia, and artwork on display around the room.
There was Steiner with Michael Jordan and Bill Clinton, bats, gloves, and jerseys all signed by Yankees legends, and a Warhol-esque pop-art print of Albert Einstein behind his desk. It all made for an interesting assortment.
His desk had hardly anything on it and his keyboard was positioned far away from him. Only his mouse was accessible, which gave me the impression that he rarely responds to emails but instead forwards them on to either of his two attractive female assistants who then contact the sender, as was the case in my getting in touch with him.
Keeping half an ear on the conversation he was having with the man in the Yankees cap, I overheard Steiner continually referred to “Hal,” “George,” and “Cash” and it quickly occurred to me that was referring to the Steinbrenners and Brian Cashman, but unlike the majority of Yankees fans, he's on a first name basis with them.
The conversation moved to Steiner's account of the previous night's Knicks-Cavs game where he witnessed the in-game conversation held between LeBron James and Jay-Z while sitting courtside next to the rapper and his wife, Beyonce.
His week had also included a sideline ticket to watch his alma-mater Syracuse upset Notre Dame, where he had a chance to catch up with “Cash.”
BS: That was a guy from the Yankees so I had to see him. Where were we?
MT: What I’m hoping to learn in this interview is how your background, upbringing, and overall make-up has allowed you to take a passion for sports and turn it into an extremely successful career in the sports world. Really, and I hope this doesn’t sound cliché, I’d like to learn the philosophy behind Brandon Steiner.
Steiner lets out a long sigh indicating his patience was waning. I quickly got to my first question.
MT: Okay so going back a bit, growing up did you collect baseball cards, was there a trend towards memorabilia and an entrepreneurial spirit visible from a young age?
BS: I was a business kid. I was one of those kids, you talk about Wayne Gretzky used to skate at age three, I was making money at age five. So yeah I was a collector, and I was a big sports nut, enthusiastic, and I played sports, never on a level where I thought I was going to play professional, but I just loved sports, I enjoyed sports, I enjoyed competition, and I enjoyed making money.
I needed to make money, I had to make money. It’s hard to imagine, in today’s world, a nine or 10 year old getting up on their own and going to work. I did that.
There's a lot of pressure put on kids and people today, that they’ve got to find this niche and this destiny that they’re going to follow, and that it has to start when they’re a kid. It’s a misunderstanding, it’s a misconception, it’s bullshit.
MT: There is pressure put on kids from a young age to figure out what it is you want to do, but I think the way the world is changing lends itself to the fact that you don’t have to just do one thing your entire life.
BS: Well the amount of top positions today in ten years from now will be completely different. So how would you know, as a fifteen or eighteen year old kid, what you want to do in ten years when the best jobs will be completely different? The best jobs today didn’t even exist ten years ago. And some of the biggest companies that will be in existence in 2020 haven’t even started yet in 2008.
So it’s a complete misunderstanding and it’s really bullshit to think that way. The real question is: Can you find fun in the unknown? Can you actually find enjoyment out of not knowing where the hell you’re going and not knowing exactly how to get there?
But the real kicker is, and when I think my journey really started when I was a kid, is that it’s really not about what happens, it’s what you do with what happens, and the kind of character that you want to have. That stuff gets built up when you’re a kid.
I think integrity is a word that gets lost. When I was at Syracuse and I was an accounting major, not a great one by the way, I wrote for the accounting newsletter. I interviewed this partner at a CPA firm, and I asked, “What’s the most important thing about being an accountant, a CPA?”
He said two things: "You gotta be able to communicate and you gotta have integrity." And I think his answer is really two of the most important things of being an adult, he probably just misunderstood my question.
It’s a great answer. You don’t develop character and integrity and communication skills all of sudden when you become an adult. That’s the stuff you develop when you’re a kid.
MT: When did you decide that you were going to try and make a run at this sports marketing thing?
BS: In 1987 I really came from a failure. I was in the sport bar business and I couldn’t open up one of those. I was kind of bummed about it because I really thought I had a good idea. I was very involved with the early conception of the sports bar before they were established all over the country.
I’ve always been a very entrepreneurial guy. And whenever I’m in a successful situation I always say to myself, “What else, what’s missing?” And that’s how I really came up with the whole sports bar thing. When I was working at the Hard Rock Cafe I remember thinking to myself, “This place needs TV’s, this is great with rock and roll, but this should be with sports.”
I’d like to think that I was definitely a big part of that concept, I mean I was right there at the beginning of that idea and probably was doing the first electronic big time sports bar. I came up with that idea.
So I helped a bunch of athletes open up their own bars, and in doing so I realized that nobody was really helping these players with a lot of marketing and stuff like that. I thought, “Wow, maybe I should do that? Nobody seems to know where to go to get a player for an appearance or for a charity event or for a golf outing.” I thought I could be this sports marketing agent.
It’s funny I remember like it was just yesterday that I was sitting in an office a third of the size of this office now, about 250 square feet; pretty small, just enough room for my desk. I shared this office with an intern and I came in that day and said, “Listen we’re going to start a sports marketing for athletes company.
So we’re going to write a letter to every athlete known to man and ask if they want to be part of our service. While you do that I’m going to go out to as many companies as I can, and as these letters come in we’ll tell these companies that we have relationships with these athletes and that we have some great ideas for how we can use athletes to help drive their business.”
And by the way, still to this day, if you were a company that wasn’t a sports related company and are trying to make your numbers go, I still think you could bring a guy like me in completely unobjectively, and I could show you how to use athletes to drive your business.
A million times, a million ways, without spending a lot, spending a lot, anybody can go up and get Michael Jordan and then BOOM, but my theme was let me help give you a million other alternatives because most companies couldn’t afford Jordan. That’s how I built my business. I went out and found the goddamn work!
MT: And you were able to find these relationships between the athletes and the company?
BS: I didn’t find them, I created them. I’m a market creator and then I activate it. And the market I created was saying to companies, “Look, you don’t have to go sign an athlete up and make a commitment to one athlete. Tell me what you’re trying to do and let me come to you with a bunch of ideas with how athletes can fit into that and make what you’re trying to do better.” You can't argue it.
See what I did was when I sent out those letters to the athletes, I made them fill out a 50 question survey asking them about their favorite products, products they used often, and companies they’d love to work with.
And I compiled all that into a database so when I was with Tropicana orange juice I knew 10 guys who loved Tropicana, drank it everyday before they went and played ball. Companies love that data.
MT: How were you able to, especially when you were just starting out, get the athletes? I imagine many of the athletes you wrote to had never even heard of Steiner, so how did you start to acquire this roster of athletes?
BS: Well first of all nobody was doing it at the time. I don’t think it’s a good business model right now for someone starting, the void’s been filled. But at that time there were a lot of players that really nobody was representing and nobody was really going out and working for.
In those days there were no computers. I had a Rolodex full of different people in sports and I had like three phones to try and contact players. But I was out in parking lots, out in clubs until four in the morning just trying to meet players, telling them what I do and getting phone numbers. It’s been a long path, you use the players you know to get to players you don’t know.
And you do a good job, so then players are calling up other players saying that this is a good guy, you can trust him. Once you have integrity, people trust you, the word spreads. And I was hustling, I was coming up with a lot of work for a lot of players by myself; I was doing it all.
MT: How did you come up with or see in advance these unique relationships that could be established between a company and an athlete?
BS: Knowledge is power, it’s understanding the company. One of things, and listen I’m getting older now, but one of dynamics that I have, or used to have, I’m not sure I really have it anymore, was that with the education and experience I have, I could sit with an executive, a VP or President and be able to talk the talk.
At the same time I was able to sit with a bunch of athletes that may be just as smart but you have to communicate with them completely differently. So being able to talk out of both sides of my mouth was one of my strengths.
MT: Do you think the timing of it all, that you were first to market, had a lot to do with establishing your company as well as the exclusive deals you have with teams like the Yankees today? (Yankees-Steiner Collectibles is a partnership between Steiner Sports and the New York Yankees which provides fans with authentic, game used memorabilia direct from Yankee Stadium.)
BS: I think first to market is everything. I think if you’re not first to market you’re bullshit. I’ve been first to market so many times and with so many situations that I’ve developed a reputation for it. People say, “If you got something, you gotta go bring that to Brandon, and he’ll tell you what to do.” That’s the kind of credibility you develop. It’s a driving point. If I were in a classroom I’d say "What Else" times "What’s Missing" equals "First to Market."
MT: It’s that simple?
BS: It’s that simple, but you know the problem is that it’s not for everybody. Success isn’t for everybody and this kind of thinking isn’t for everybody. It is a lot of wear and tear. The Yankees deal took three and a half years to get it done, and a lot of people wouldn’t have the wherewithal; it was tough. The Yankees are a big company and they’re not an easy company. It’s a complex arrangement we have.
And that’s what people don’t realize about me, as aggressive as I am, and I am, I’m extremely energized and enthusiastic and aggressive, but I have patience way beyond what people know. Think about that for a minute. There’s not many people that have that kind of make up. That’s not normal, that’s very odd.
MT: What are you working on now?
BS: Well I'm doing interviews of players for the YES Network. And I like my radio, I'm a big radio guy, and I’m doing radio now about once a month for ESPN Radio. So when I grow up I'm hoping I can do more of that.
MT: When you grow up? Sounds like there's a lot still to come.
BS: Yeah I mean it’s funny, I still think like I’m a little kid. I guess it’s a problem because I’m not, but I still like to have a little kid approach about a lot of things. It’s difficult, you have to work harder as you grow older to remember and keep in touch with being a little kid.
That’s where all the good stuff happens, and I think that’s where the best ideas come from. That’s where Last Licks came from. (Last Licks Ice Cream is a chain of ice cream shops founded by Steiner that endorses sports memorabilia and promotes monthly public signings by professional athletes.)
MT: That's not a bad gig, serving scoops...
BS: Yeah, I'll probably be better known as a guy who owned ice cream stores than I will as a guy who owned all this.
MT: Any deals currently in the works?
BS: I’m working on another deal, I can’t tell you though, but it’s another similar type of Yankees thing. It’ll take me a couple of years to pull this thing together, but when it does happen it’ll be an industry changer.
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