Chiefs

How agents used an old-school playbook to market Chiefs’ Mahomes, a new-age phenom

Chiefs fans have fallen in love with a charismatic Patrick Mahomes

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been doing an exceptional job of leading the team into the playoffs, and fans are in love with the charismatic way Mahomes has embraced his adopted city.
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes has been doing an exceptional job of leading the team into the playoffs, and fans are in love with the charismatic way Mahomes has embraced his adopted city.

Hunt’s courtship of Patrick Mahomes began the way so many other relationships originated in 2018.

The brand slid into his DMs.

After seeing Heinz offer Mahomes ketchup for life if he threw 57 touchdown passes — a tribute to the original Heinz 57 varieties advertising campaign — Hunt’s executives knew they had to up the ante.

So they reached out to Mahomes in a personal Twitter message.

“So about the ketchup thing,” the message read, including a smiley-face emoji. “We got you, no strings attached. We’re putting together a special care package for you.

“Let us know if there’s a good address to deliver it to. Your mac and cheese will always have ketchup. And that’s a promise.”

Within minutes, Mahomes responded with a laugh and his address.

And now, what started as a direct message is a match made in marketing heaven. The company has in-store displays, Twitter videos and more planned for the offseason.

But why this partnership, and why now?

Because it’s genuine, from Mahomes’ love of ketchup to the organic way the partnership formed. And the timing was right.

After laying low for his first year and a half in Kansas City, Mahomes is starting to pop up more in advertising campaigns for various brands on a local and national level.

That’s by design.

As carefully as Andy Reid has molded Mahomes on the field, the quarterback’s agents have gone to great lengths to shape him off the field. Led by agents Leigh Steinberg and partner Chris Cabott of Steinberg Sports, Mahomes’ image is carefully managed through selective brand partnerships and calculated marketing decisions.

With Mahomes’ affable personality and natural talent, marketing him isn’t much of a challenge for the duo. Instead, the difficulty comes in selecting which brands and companies with which to partner.

Just because Mahomes hasn’t been in many commercials or on a lot of billboards around town doesn’t mean he’s not doing endorsements. He’s just doing them quietly.

“We cannot overpromote,” Steinberg said. “The point is not to saturate so people become tired of Patrick. There’s a timing with how much shows up on television or social media and the rest of it.”

Through limiting his commercial exposure and valuing relationships over transactions, Mahomes’ agents are setting him up for even greater success in the not-too-distant future.

Making connections

Conagra, the company that owns the Hunt’s brands, has formed partnerships like the one between Mahomes and Hunt’s in the past.

After the Chicago Cubs’ 2016 World Series run, David’s Sunflower Seeds partnered with Javy Baez. The second baseman, who was known for chewing sunflower seeds during games, became the face of the brand in July 2017 and had his own limited-edition spicy queso sunflower seeds.

“We look for people that are authentic, credible, that are associated with the product in a way that’s relatable and not contrived,” said Tom McGough, Conagra’s executive vice president and co-chief operating officer.

The partnership fits in line with some of Steinberg’s main marketing tenets: endorse products you actually use, and emphasize relationships over transactions.

“What we’re hoping to do is build long-term relationships — so like Troy Aikman today, he’s still doing endorsements 20 years after his career is over,” Steinberg said.

In addition to Hunt’s, Cabott, Steinberg’s partner, also helped Mahomes strike deals with Adidas, CommunityAmerica Credit Union, Panini Trading Cards, Airshare, SSM Auctions, TicketsForLess, Bose headphones, Hyvee, Advocare, Goodcents Deli Fresh Sub and a soon-to-come virtual-reality project where game-players can experience playing quarterback from Mahomes’ point of view.

Patrick Mahomes stars in a commercial for Goodcents Deli Fresh Subs celebrating 30 years of sandwiches in Kansas City.

And yes, there is a cereal in the works. Although, Steinberg said, the name won’t be Patty Flakes.

“It’s been renamed Mahomes Magic Crunch,” Steinberg said. “We were originally going with Patty Flakes, but they tested out names and that’s sort of where it’s at.”

The foundation for Mahomes’ partnership with each one of the companies is similar: Each product is one that has value and is one that the quarterback actually would use.

Take, for example, Mahomes’ partnership with Airshare.

The Kansas City company is a private jet service primarily used by executives and business professionals who want to increase productivity and efficiency. Last year, the company began a rebranding, moving from Executive AirShare to just Airshare.

In Mahomes, the company saw someone who could help with the brand’s evolution.

“He really represents that next wave of individuals that are not only rising in popularity,” said Andy Tretiak, Airshare’s chief marketing officer, “but also his leadership skills and just the natural leadership you have to have as a quarterback really appealed to us, because those are the types of people that are customers of ours.”

While Airshare gets to use Mahomes and his likeness to market its product, Mahomes gets to use the jets. Not only does he have a personal allotment of airtime, his family also gets to use the service. For every home Chiefs game, a jet picks them up in Tyler, Texas, and delivers them to Kansas City. And after the game, they hop on a plane back to Tyler.

In a recent interview with KC television station KSHB, Mahomes’ mom, Randi, said she’s been able to go to more of her son’s games now than when he was growing up. That, Tretiak said, makes the partnership between his company and Mahomes all the more valuable.

“For us to be able to provide that service for his family is something that’s really rewarding for us,” he said.

The man with the plan

Steinberg figures he met with Mahomes’ parents and godfather LaTroy Hawkins, a former MLB pitcher, four or five times before he ever sat down with the quarterback.

Mahomes’ support system wanted to fully vet all of the candidates to be his agent, making absolutely certain their values lined up with whoever they hired to guide the young Mahomes through his professional career.

In veteran agent Steinberg and up-and-coming partner Cabott, they found a match.

“He had always done a great job letting the kid be a role model and being the kind of athlete that people will like to see,” Pat Mahomes Sr. said of Steinberg, one of the original “super agents” who also previously represented the likes of NFL quarterbacks Ben Roethlisberger and the now-retired Steve Young.

Steinberg’s methods haven’t changed much in the more than four decades he’s been in the business. Though he’s had to reinvent himself and his agency a couple times, his process — the one on which he sold Mahomes’ family — has largely stayed the same.

He starts the marketing and branding process slowly, allowing players to get established on their team and in their market before pasting their faces all over billboards.

In Mahomes’ case, Steinberg waited more than a year before he really started to move on endorsement deals.

“In order to give him a cushion and to not take from the Kansas City community before we give, we made a decision not to do big endorsements last year and continuing on this year, not to have him on billboards during the regular season, not to have him on TV,” Steinberg said.

“You have with him a really special young man who aspires to be a role model, wants to make a difference in the world, is very sensitive to the feelings of others, is very, very bright and very giving.”

Steinberg’s marketing strategy begins with retracing an athlete’s roots. In Mahomes case, that means starting with communities like Lubbock, Texas.

Formed in summer 2017, one of Mahomes’ earliest deals was with the McGavock Nissan dealership in Lubbock, where Mahomes played in college at Texas Tech. Mahomes now has connections with Kansas City dealerships and the potential of national Nissan partnerships, Steinberg said.

Though national deals can often be the most lucrative, Steinberg stresses forming relationships with local companies first. That’s why some of Mahomes’ earliest deals were with Kansas City companies like Airshare and CommunityAmerica Credit Union.

“There definitely were opportunities for them to do a variety of different deals, and probably a lot of them weren’t necessarily Kansas City-focused,” said Airshare’s Tretiak. “But he really wants to be ingrained within the Kansas City community, and we’re lucky to have him.”

Steinberg also wants Mahomes’ partnerships to have a charitable aspect to them.

In July 2017, Mahomes appeared at McGavock Nissan and signed autographs for $50 a person. But that money wasn’t for Mahomes. Instead, the proceeds went to the Team Luke Foundation and High Point Village. Mahomes still supports the Team Luke Foundation, decorating his cleats in the NFL’s annual “My Cause, My Cleats” game to the organization that raises money for loved ones of people suffering from traumatic brain injuries. High Point Village is a faith-based community for people with intellectual disabilities.

“We wanted to lead with him showing a charitable commitment to the community and to the area,” Steinberg said.

In the coming months, Mahomes is planning to launch his own charitable foundation, Steinberg said. Many of his endorsements will then link back to the foundation.

First impressions

Hours after Mahomes declared himself eligible for the 2017 NFL Draft at a small news conference in Lubbock, he boarded a plane to Dallas with his family and his newly signed agents.

Once they landed, the group headed to the headquarters of Panini Trading Cards, the exclusive card company of the NFL and the NFL Players Association.

For the next hour and a half, Mahomes met with executives and employees in the building. He got an inside look at the card production and autograph process.

Touring the headquarters isn’t all that rare. But doing it the same day a player declares for the draft?

That’s never happened.

“Certainly to declare for the draft and then literally get on a plane and come here, no one’s ever done that before,” said Jason Howarth, Panini’s vice president of marketing.

That January trip to Dallas represented the first step in the branding of Patrick Mahomes as a professional athlete. He wouldn’t sign an endorsement with them that day, but it came shortly after. That day was just a meet-and-greet, an opportunity to put names with faces and lay a foundation for a lasting partnership.

In starting his journey by forming relationships with the people at Panini, Mahomes showed a maturity beyond his years and a dedication to going beyond the transactional nature of endorsements.

Since that initial meeting, Mahomes has been heavily involved with Panini. The company was a part of Mahomes’ at-home draft party, and he traveled to last year’s Super Bowl as a part of Panini’s contingent. While he was on that Super Bowl trip, news broke of Alex Smith’s trade the night before Mahomes was scheduled to hit radio row for a gauntlet of media interviews.

But even the the midst of all the chaos, Howarth remembers Mahomes’ calm demeanor.

“We all knew that Patrick was going to be the guy (starting quarterback for the Chiefs) at some point,” Howarth said. “We didn’t anticipate that that would become a reality the day before we put him on radio row during Super Bowl week. I just remember talking to Patrick that night and kind of walking him through the process of, ‘OK, here you go. This is game time now, man. This is it.’

“We walked through what the expectation was, and what kind of things to anticipate. All things that he’s very comfortable with, because he knows it, he’s been around it.”

Groomed by a big-league father and a mother filled with charisma and humility, Mahomes is a marketer’s dream. He’s genuine, down-to-earth and relatable — as much as a first-round draft pick with inhuman strength and a magician’s touch can be, anyway.

To prepare him for life in the public eye, Pat Mahomes Sr. conducted mock interviews with his son from the time he was 11 or 12.

“I’d experienced it and I knew how important it was to come across, and people really understand what you’re saying and not just to be giving answers just to be giving answers,” Pat Mahomes Sr. said. “Think about what’s asked of you and then compose yourself for a second and say what you gotta say.

“He’s been doing it for a long time and he’s an intelligent kid. He’s always made good grades and everything, so I think it came easy to him. It’s just a matter of going out there and expressing yourself on how you feel.”

‘More of a friend’

J.P. Murnan didn’t quite know what to expect when Patrick Mahomes stepped out of the black Suburban SUV over the summer.

The 26-year-old diesel mechanic had never met a professional athlete before, and he’d certainly never spent the day playing catch in the front yard and opening up rare boxes of trading cards with one.

But after winning a Panini-sponsored contest at his local card shop in Overland Park, that’s just what happened.

Murnan won the grand prize, a day with an NFL player, out of more than 150,000 participants at 600 hobby shops. He found out later that Mahomes was the region’s designated meet-and-greet player.

“I was watching the draft in 2017 when they (the Chiefs) took him,” Murnan said. “That’s who I wanted to them to take. So, just being able to meet him, or get the opportunity to, was beyond exciting.”

When Mahomes arrived in Shawnee, Kan., for the afternoon, Murnan was instantly put at ease by the quarterback’s relaxed personality. Mahomes introduced himself to each of the 30 people there, taking time to talk and connect with everyone.

“He could have been somebody I went to high school went,” Murnan said. “You wouldn’t think of him as a professional athlete, just the way he acted. I mean, he was just so nice to everybody, so down to earth, so open to talk about anything.”

That’s the charm of Mahomes. That’s why he’s such a hot commodity to marketing professionals and so beloved by the fans in Kansas City and players in the Chiefs’ locker room. From teammates to fans to the people behind the brands he represents, Mahomes has the innate ability to connect with people.

It’s what has made him an endearing figure in such a short amount of time.

“At the end of the day, he does his job and he does it great,” Chiefs running back Damien Williams said. “But off the field, he’s a brother. He’s a friend. He’s doing every little thing with you. It’s fun just to see him so involved with guys, not just guys on the offense. Defensive guys. He’s in the mix. It’s great to see a quarterback like that.”

Mahomes and his team of advisers don’t want him to be a short-lived fad. That’s why they’re so careful with the products he endorses and the way he endorses them. He wants to connect with people beyond the brands and the fans in Kansas City.

And based on early returns, he’s doing just that.

“It’s kind of weird,” Murnan said, “like when I see him on TV playing, I always think of him as more of a friend than just, you know, some guy that happens to be the quarterback for my team.”

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.


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