It’s a bitter cold December night in New Jersey, and the chill is seeping into the cavernous Continental Airlines Arena. Empty purple seats abound, and a soporific crowd watches as New Jersey Nets star Stephon Marbury tries to will his slumping squad on to victory.
Again and again, Mr. Marbury throws his slight, sinewy body into the bruising maw of the Miami Heat defense. Defenders cling to him like burrs to a sweatshirt. Swish! He drains a rainbow three-pointer from 25 feet out. Then he follows with a slashing coast-to-coast drive to the hoop. Mr. Marbury’s four teammates are, for the most part, scenery, standing sheepishly to the side as the tattoo-adorned Nets guard whirls dervish-like up and down the court. The buzzer sounds. Heat 86, Nets 80. A few desultory boos ring out as the crowd heads for the exits. Thirty-seven points for Mr. Marbury, but it just wasn’t enough. Head to the floor, his shoulders slumped, Mr. Marbury strides quickly off to the locker room.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When National Basketball Association super-agent David Falk engineered the March 1999 trade that brought Brooklyn-born Stephon Marbury to the Nets and in from the wintry cold of his exile with the Minnesota Timberwolves, expectations were ascendant. No, the Meadowlands was not the Garden, but the Nets were a young, up-and-coming team, and with Mr. Marbury as a genuine hometown hero working his magic, no one doubted that Stephon would own the area.
It would be a great business partnership: David Falk and the dynamic Mr. Marbury in the N.B.A.’s biggest market. Endorsements, sneaker deals and national marketing campaigns were sure to follow.
So it came as a surprise in June when Mr. Marbury not only severed his relationship with Mr. Falk but bluntly explained why: There were no endorsements. No sneaker deals. Nothing.
“I’m in the largest media market in the world, and I have not made one dime,” he told a reporter. Of Mr. Falk, he said at the time: “I know the market is tough, but just don’t be telling me you are the super-agent.”
But the bigger surprise was to follow. In September, Mr. Marbury hired Horst-Dieter Esch, the president of Wilhelmina International Ltd., to be his point man for marketing and endorsement deals.
It seemed a funny match. Wilhelmina has a long history of representing top-flight fashion models. It had recently diversified a bit, first taking on music industry clients and then entering the sports field by signing on the likes of Katarina Witt. But Stephon Marbury, basketball star?
Yet, while Wilhelmina still boasts a decent stable of models, they are not the cover-girl superstars that defined the agency in the 1970’s. As more and more agencies have sprouted up, the talent pool has become increasingly diluted. So Mr. Esch has moved quickly into music, and now sports. And he is not the only one: Just recently, Ford Models signed a letter of intent to be bought by Magnum Sports, a New York-based sports marketing firm, for a reported $22 million.
“It’s a logical extension of our fashion sense,” said Mr. Esch. “Fashion, music and sports customers are all similar, so the treatment of the talent should be the same, too. And it’s exciting for our models, too: We took 50 to a Nets game recently, and it created a lot of excitement in the arena. Fox TV even picked it up. My models really liked it; you know they are always struggling to get tickets.”
The bigger question is not whether Mr. Esch should merge the sports and modeling worlds–that, obviously, has been going on for years. The real issue is whether he can succeed. Can a onetime German construction magnate with a dubious past, only 10 years into his latest run as a modeling honcho, be the one to sell Stephon Marbury to a public that seems as disinterested as the scant crowds that have been turning out at the Continental Arena each night? Is it possible to market a basketball star–even one with Mr. Marbury’s urban cool and flair for the game–in the post-Jordan N.B.A.?
Mr. Esch certainly thinks so. The day he read in the papers that Mr. Marbury had split from Mr. Falk, he was on the phone to Mr. Marbury’s older sister Marcia Marbury, who is her brother’s personal manager.
“‘Boy, this kid has guts,’ I said to myself,” said Mr. Esch. “He just came out and said, ‘I have no endorsements.’ It’s a tough thing for an athlete to be that honest and straightforward to the public.” Within a week, they had a deal.
Next Destiny’s Child
Mr. Esch clearly seems to be enjoying his latest rebirth as a sports agent. And he’s a man who’s been reborn once or twice before. Having made millions as a young construction entrepreneur in West Germany in the 1980’s, he was jailed on fraud charges in 1984. He resurfaced in New York in 1989, bought the Wilhelmina agency for between $5 million and $10 million and in 1993 made his 22-year-old daughter Natasha–then fresh out of college–its president. His daughter has moved on, Wilhelmina’s fortunes have flagged a bit and Mr. Esch is now back in charge.
He is a big, burly man with a German beer-hall swagger, a matching paunch and an accent that remains thick. “Hold all my calls, except Leigh Steinberg,” he yells to an aide, referring to the football agent, as he settles down for an interview in his spacious corner office on Park Avenue South.
Mr. Esch has a grand dream for his newest protégé. He sees the 23-year-old Mr. Marbury as the next great cross-over N.B.A. marketer, somewhere between Grant Hill and Alan Iverson.”I want Stephon to cross,” Mr. Esch says grandly. “I want him to be the next Destiny’s Child, the next Brandy [both Wilhelmina clients from its music side–along with Hootie and the Blowfish], artists that cross over into an entirely new area.”
It will be a difficult job, however. N.B.A. stars these days are getting younger and younger, coming straight out of high school with perhaps a one- or two-year pit stop at college. They are, as a result, less mature and much less media-and-P.R.-savvy than marketing icons such as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and, more recently, Mr. Hill. Mr. Marbury, for example, spent only one year at Georgia Tech before jumping straight to the Timberwolves in 1997 at the age of 19.
The market has also dried up. Sneaker giants like Nike and Reebok–their stocks under pressure because of saturated markets and shifting tastes and styles–have been shying away from the multimillion-dollar sneaker deals that defined the peak Jordan and Hill years.
And then there is the unavoidable fact that Mr. Marbury is playing for a losing team in an airline hangar of an arena in New Jersey.
“Our league is getting younger,” says Nets president Rod Thorn. “And we need to do a better job at assimilating kids. In the end, though, winning is the biggest thing. Look at Jordan: Until he started winning, he didn’t become Michael Jordan.”
None of which is news to Mr. Esch. “The market is just much tougher now. In order to get the millions of [dollars in] endorsements, Stephon has to perform on the court. And he has to win. I told him that clearly at the beginning. Without him and his team performing, there is very little I can do for him.”
Classy and Conservative
So far, progress has been incremental. Mr. Esch has signed his client up for a deal to wear Hugo Boss suits–”It’s a good image for Stephon: classy and conservative,” he explains. “He will wear Boss now at all public occasions, like when we take him to the Grammys and the Academy Awards.” There is, as well, a low-impact regional marketing deal with a Pepsi bottler comprising a few radio spots and some meet-and-greets.
Mr. Esch also promises an imminent sneaker deal–one that would include a new line of shoes, royalties and the introduction of a new Marbury brand: Starbury.
Strangely for such a high-profile star (his scoring average of 24.9 per game ranks him eighth in the league), Mr. Marbury has no sneaker deal. Indeed, it was a deal gone bad with And 1 sneakers that lies at the root of Mr. Marbury’s disillusionment with Mr. Falk. Negotiated while he was still a Timberwolf, it was to have been Mr. Marbury’s first high-profile deal. But a closer look revealed a series of flaws.
“The money was good, but the reality of the deal was terrible,” said Mr. Marbury. “David wanted me to sign it, but after my lawyers looked over the deal I asked him, ‘How could you put this in my hands? You are supposed to be the one looking out after me. There is no way I’ll sign that.'” To say nothing of the fact that he could never get his agent on the phone, he claims. “I think I would have an easier time getting in touch with Bill Clinton than I had calling Falk,” he said.
Reached on the phone, Mr. Falk gave his own version of events.
“A year ago, we had a deal with And 1 that would have paid Stephon $8 million over five years, with stock options included. Our recommendation was for him to take it, given the difficult market conditions. We also brought him another $2 million in deals–all of which he turned down. Which is his prerogative. He is the client.”
On June 22, though, Mr. Falk said, he sent a letter to Mr. Marbury via Federal Express resigning as his agent. A few days later, Mr. Marbury went public and said that he had fired Mr. Falk. “I realized that my role was as an adviser,” said Mr. Falk. “I don’t expect a client to follow my advice 100 percent of the time, but certainly most of the time.”
As for his communications with Mr. Marbury? “In my 26 years as an agent, I have not spoken with a client as much as I did with Steph–most of the time on my cell. But I have a staff of 400 people–as well as lawyers–to talk to Stephon about papering a deal.”
And while Mr. Falk still wishes the best for Mr. Marbury and considers him a friend, he is skeptical about whether his former client should expect a better sneaker deal to come along.
“Stephon is a New York kid; he is good-looking, well-spoken–but you have to sell the market. Until New Jersey turns it around, being in the New York marketplace only accentuates the negative. I hope he does sign a sneaker deal. Do I think he will get a better one than the And 1 deal? I doubt it.”
Both Mr. Esch and Mr. Marbury seem sure their deal will be different–and if it does indeed close, it will be the endorsement anchor for Mr. Marbury’s future deals. They have their theme: the Starbury shoe, with a dash of urban attitude. “The thing with Stephon is that he is a nice person, but also a little bit edgy. Look, you can be a nice person, but that does not mean people will buy your shoes. At the end of the day, the kid has to sell product,” said Mr. Esch.
A multimillion-dollar sneaker deal would not only be a boon to Mr. Marbury, but to Mr. Esch as well, who gets 20 percent from both sides of each deal that he puts together.
But it will not be easy. Unlike the Garden, Nets games rarely sell out, and when it comes to star power courtside–well, there is much work to be done. Indeed, Mr. Esch has been hired by Nets management to bring a little celebrity zip to Nets home games. So he brought his models to that one game, and on a few recent nights a panning Fox TV camera could espy the likes of CNBC Squawk Box personalities Joe Kernan, Mark Haynes and Jamie Lynn Sigler (a.k.a. Meadow Soprano). They also hope to bring the Fox television anchorman Brian Kilnead to another game–Wilhelmina clients all. Spike Lee and Woody Allen they may not be, but one has to start somewhere. “The Nets want us to bring some glitz and glamour to the games, so we do what we can,” said Mr. Esch with a shrug.
So what does Mr. Marbury think of it all? Having split with Mr. Falk, he is on his own now–with Mr. Esch handling the marketing side and his sister and an accountant looking after his finances.
“I feel very confident now. Without an agent, I’m doing things on my own and learning more about the business side,” he said in the locker room following the Heat game. “My sister handles everything: I get $1,000 a week spending money and am limited to $20,000 per month on my credit cards–even though I only spend $6,000 or $7,000 a month. I like the fact that I can keep myself on budget.” His voice is a touch above a whisper, meek even, barely audible amidst the locker-room cacophony. A wisp of a mustache traces his upper lip. His eyes are soft and child-like. In his civvies–a white T-shirt and slacks–he could well be a college freshman. Outside, his sister Marcia, his fiancée with his two small children and his mother all wait for him.
How about all this pressure–to cross over, to sign the next Jordan-type sneaker deal, to make the Nets win?
“I don’t want to be like Jordan. I just want kids to know who Stephon Marbury is,” he said. “And when you talk about crossing over, all it really is is black kids and white kids doing the same thing. They just want to buy the hottest thing. It’s no longer white kids walking around with turtlenecks and sweaters–now they too are dressing down, wearing jeans and a hoody.”
He paused. “Right now I don’t have any deals, and it would be great to have some endorsements. But for me, it’s about basketball. I just love playing basketball; I love the game.”