Visiting Dignitaries

Breakfast With Tiki: Retired Football Star Has New Radio Show, Startup to Help Jocks Cash in on Fame

“It’s the long-tail popularity of talent. Once you retire, you’re left with this fame which can’t be monetized anymore.”
Tiki time. (Photo: Nicholas Hunt/PatrickMcMullan.com)

Tiki time. (Photo: Nicholas Hunt/PatrickMcMullan.com)

Maybe you have always wanted to meet Tiki Barber, the New York Giants legend. Perhaps you’d like to ask him what it was like to lead the National Football League in total yards from scrimmage in 2005, or how he really feels about Eli Manning, or maybe you’d like to tell him you still haven’t forgiven him for leaving Fox & Friends.

Good news. Mr. Barber is the co-founder of a technology startup called Thuzio, an “online marketplace for celebrity experiences.” Want to play a round of golf with Mr. Barber’s twin brother Ronde? You can, for a mere $2,500. Feel like taking NBA great Gary Payton to a basketball game? That’s just $5,000.

Maybe sports aren’t your thing. Maybe you’d like to have dinner with the mentalist Jim Karol ($1,600) or the competitive eater Takeru Kobayashi ($1,500).

Or maybe you think this is all ridiculous—a sad attempt to trade on the fading reputations of former jocks by appealing to overgrown fan boys who should probably stick to trading cards. In which case, you can have lunch with Mr. Barber himself and tell him so—for just $500 (a bargain while the company gets off the ground).

Or you could tell him you’d like to interview him about his reemergence in the public eye for a weekly newspaper, and he might just waive the fee altogether.

“We identified a problem that exists for former athletes,” Mr. Barber told us over a breakfast at the Trump SoHo hotel. “It’s the long-tail popularity of talent. Once you retire, you’re left with this fame which can’t be monetized anymore.”

Translated from the prospectus-speak in which Mr. Barber is fluent, that means there are a lot of retired athletes out there who could use the extra scratch, and who, if they weren’t reliving their glory days for paying customers, would probably be boring their wives and children and drinking buddies retelling the same old stories anyway.

Besides, if Thuzio were such a bad idea, would talent be signing up to the platform at the rate of about 20 new clients a week? Would two big New York literary agents be preparing to put their clients on the platform? So what if Thuzio takes 20 percent off the top, or if the idea seems a little self-serving; it’s also practical, and possibly brilliant­—the kind of thing that perhaps only Mr. Barber himself might have dreamed up.

Thuzio isn’t the only the only new venture in Mr. Barber’s life. At the beginning of the year, Mr. Barber hurtled back into the national media, launching a national morning show for CBS Sports Radio with Brandon Tierney and Dana Jacobson, Mr. Barber isn’t new to the dial. His media career began in 1999, after he tore up his knee during his rookie season. “So my manager and I said, let’s divorce you from the game of football,” Mr. Barber said, sitting in the show’s Hudson Street studio, dressed in wrinkled blue jeans and busted brown shoes, a sweater pulled over his collared shirt. While his injury healed, he became a student of the New York sports media—the eager-to-please football star with the big smile and the business degree from the University of Virginia, the kind of striver who was willing to wake up at 3 a.m. during the offseason to read yesterday’s sports news on the 5 a.m. local news broadcast.

That wasn’t all. He did late-night radio work on WFAN and the early-morning sports gig on Channel 2. He wrote a series of children’s books with Ronde, a defensive back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He helped launch the Yes! Network’s football programming and guested on everything from Cash Cab, Celebrity Family Feud and Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me to Iron Chef America.

The breakthrough came in 2005, when he signed on as a guest host on Fox & Friends. It was no coincidence that Mr. Barber’s football career had also resumed in earnest. After the knee injury healed, he’d developed into one of the top offensive players in the game. When he hung up his spikes at the end of 2006, he had an array of high-profile offers, ultimately spurning big money from Fox to jump to NBC.

“If we had to do it over again, Tiki probably should have stayed at Fox,” Mark Lepselter, Mr. Barber’s manager, told The Observer. “They knew him, and they knew his work ethic there. He had some goodwill vested.” At NBC, not so much. It probably didn’t help that Mr. Barber had conducted his job search in the most high-profile way possible, punctuating his transition from All-Pro running back to network correspondent with a New Yorker profile proclaiming the rise of “Tiki, Inc.” and accompanied by a topless portrait.

By 2007, Mr. Barber’s marriage to his college sweetheart Ginny was already on the rocks. They separated once, then reconciled, and were in the process of splitting up for good when The New York Post dropped a bombshell. Mr. Barber, who was 34 at the time, was leaving his pregnant wife for a 23-year-old NBC intern named Traci Lynn Johnson. Two months later, NBC canceled Mr. Barber’s contract. Tiki says that his relationship with the network wasn’t working anyway, and that he was ready to move on. The tabloids reported that NBC invoked its morality clause.

Whatever the cause, Mr. Barber was out—hanging out at home with Ms. Johnson, whom he would later marry, watching television for hours on end. “I literally was waking up, having breakfast, finding an old show on Netflix, Cheers or Roseanne or Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” he told us. “And I was getting bored; I felt myself mentally losing it.”

It was an odd repose for a figure who’d spent the better part of his 20s courting the public eye. Early in his career, Mr. Barber came under the wing of Giants co-owner Bob Tisch, and when Mr. Tisch passed away, Tiki was asked to speak at the funeral. “I said, ‘Bob had a lot of great accomplishments, but I think his greatest accomplishment might be that he made a young black kid from the South feel like he was Jewish’”—an anecdote The Observer took to mean that Mr. Barber felt connected to Manhattan society.

He sent his kids to school at the 92nd Street Y, and peppers his conversation with casual references to various hedge funds.

“Back in the day, I used to say we had the keys to the city,” Tiki’s manager Mr. Lepselter told us. “There was virtually nobody who was more than two phone calls away.”

In the aftermath of his dismissal, old friends pulled away. It didn’t help that he’d taken a public shot at Giants quarterback Eli Manning in an early TV appearance, or that Mr. Manning had gone on to lead the Giants to the Super Bowl that year.

Perhaps it also hurt that Mr. Barber had thrown away a sports career for what he deemed a higher calling—not just yukking it up on the pregame show, but doing real journalism. He has hardly done an interview about his media career that doesn’t include references to his meetings with Condoleezza Rice and Shimon Peres.

“I’m complex, and that turns people off sometimes,” he told us over omelets later in the day at the Trump SoHo. “I’m not simple—I’m not in a box. I’m not just an athlete or football player or journalist.”

At the suggestion of a college friend, he went to meet Mark Gerson, co-founder and chairman of the expert network company Gerson Lehrman Group. The two men soon became a striking pair—a muscle-bound athlete and a reed-thin businessman, united perhaps by their hyperproductive natures (in addition to his entrepreneurial work, Mr. Gerson is the author of two books and the chairman of an emergency ambulance service in Israel).

Together, they quickly identified a problem: athletes often retire with valuable brands but have no way to cash in.

The unlikely pair “went to Club Macanudo, smoked a cigar and talked about how to solve the problem,” Mr. Barber said. “Every week, we’d have lunch at Club Mac, have a cigar, and talk about it.”

Thuzio was born, and before long the two had raised $1.5 million in funding from Manhattan real estate tycoon Steve Ross, who also owns the Miami Dolphins. In the early days, the new company focused its energy on recruiting talent for the platform. Mr. Barber, meanwhile, offered himself up as a guinea pig, taking lunch dates and invitations to join games of flag football to help the company develop data used to set price points.

Around the same time, Mr. Barber was invited to try out for the CBS Sports Radio gig. The prospect of two jobs didn’t faze him. Hadn’t he managed an engineering course-load at UVA while dedicating day and night to the football team? “I’ve always been ambitious,” he said. “Maybe I should have been on Wall Street and been a hedge fund manager.” When he finishes the show, Mr. Barber rides the PATH train back home to Jersey City, has breakfast with his new wife, then heads back into the city for a day of work at Thuzio’s offices in his old stomping grounds on the Upper East Side.

As for where his media career is going, Mr. Barber isn’t sure. Over breakfast, he regaled The Observer with fond memories of the stories he covered during his NBC days, not just sports fluff, but pieces on South African shantytowns and African immigrants in the deep South, and another about divorce in same-sex marriages called “Through a Child’s Eyes.” “Wherever it goes, I give him a boatload of credit for getting back on the horse,” Mr. Lepselter said.

And Thuzio? The company launched in the Los Angeles market this past weekend and is signing up new talent every day. “We want to have every piece of talent in the world on our platform,” Mr. Gerson told us. “Tiki always says, everyone we meet is either talent on the platform or a potential customer.”

pclark@observer.com

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