Thuzio recruits Pittsburgh athletes for celebrity bookings


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Need a fourth for that round of golf? Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi could join, if you've got $3,000 to spend. Entertaining clients at the Steelers game? Consider inviting former Steelers linebacker Robin Cole to take that extra seat for an even $2,000.

Thuzio, a New York company that launched last year with the idea of pairing current and former athletes with the public in unusual ways, recently moved into the Pittsburgh market. The result could be some interesting sightings at coming gatherings.

In its sports celebrity marketplace, generally geared toward the business community, interested companies can sign up to entertain clients by taking them clay shooting with former Steelers tight end Randy Grossman ($500) or having them play flag football with Steelers safety Will Allen ($1,850).

But there also are opportunities for the average fan with money to burn.

Most Thuzio athletes can be hired to record a personal video message for $99, and several are willing to show up at birthday parties, bat mitzvahs and weddings for varying fees. Others have offered their expertise for private or group coaching sessions, including former Penguins forward Georges Laraque.

Some athletes will even hang out at your fantasy draft -- although they might be a bit offended if you don't take them with your first pick.

PG graphic: Pittsburgh market athletes represented by Thuzio
(Click image for larger version)

Pirates baseball manager Clint Hurdle helped spur the company's interest in the Pittsburgh market when he signed on earlier this year. Mr. Hurdle, who had a booking agent in Colorado where he worked until 2009, was looking for representation closer to Pittsburgh when one of his contacts suggested Thuzio.

Mr. Hurdle "did some digging" after watching one of the company's infomercials and decided to join.

"That's what made us want to have a bigger platform in Pittsburgh," said Thuzio chief executive Jared Augustine. "It's just a diehard sports town. It's got a really dynamic business community as well, and that's what drives a lot of our bookings."

Previously, the company focused on creating partnerships with athletes in some of the country's biggest cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Boston and Chicago.

So far, the company has signed 24 past and present Pittsburgh athletes, most of them joining in the past couple months. Nationwide, it has about 1,300 athletes with an eventual goal of 10,000.

Revenues are growing 20 percent month over month, Mr. Augustine said. Most of the growth has been driven by football-related bookings, but Thuzio is starting to sign non-sports celebrities, such as actors, musicians and celebrity chefs. The company takes a portion of all booking fees, like an agent or a speaker's bureau.

"We're a platform," Mr. Augustine said. "We don't want to be an agency. We think smart agents will recognize that. 'You have a full-time job. It's really hard to take time to find the $5,000 local engagement, and yet, your client wants them.' "

About 30 percent of Thuzio "pros" are current athletes. The remainder is composed of former athletes, sportscasters and coaches.

Athletes who sign with Thuzio help build their profiles on the website, Thuzio.com, and list the types of events they are willing to attend. They can dictate how frequently, or infrequently, they are available for appearances and how near or far they are willing to travel.

In many ways what Thuzio is doing is not revolutionary. Speakers bureaus have long tailored celebrity appearances to corporate events. And athletes have always made paid public appearances, although agents and publicists usually handled those bookings. But Thuzio's twist -- by offering distinct experiences and having a sports-centered theme -- is new.

Former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber co-founded the company and helped sell Mr. Hurdle on the idea in a phone conversation.

Mr. Hurdle had grown comfortable speaking in group environments while managing the Colorado Rockies. There, friends asked him to speak at corporate luncheons and leadership seminars. Initially, his work was pro bono.

"A guy reached out and said, 'No, we want to contract you. Have you ever done a PowerPoint?' " Mr. Hurdle said.

He hadn't. But within a week, he was running a PowerPoint presentation. He did three paid speaking engagements that year and said he tries to do between three and six each offseason.

This year, he plans to do five or six.

He will speak at a Thuzio-booked event next month when he addresses a fundraiser for the Bethel Park Baseball Association on Jan. 15 at the Bethel Park High School auditorium. Paul Zaremski, vice president of the youth baseball association, heard Mr. Hurdle talk about Thuzio on radio station 93.7 The Fan and thought his appearance could liven the event.

"I knew he would be a great motivational speaker," Mr. Zaremski said.

Mr. Zaremski also believes the 2013 National League Manager of the Year will drive ticket sales to the event.

The baseball association booked Mr. Hurdle at a cost of $4,000, and is selling tickets for $10. The Pirates manager is scheduled to speak for 30 minutes, take questions for 15 minutes and sign autographs for another half hour.

Mr. Hurdle is doing his homework. He spent some time this Thanksgiving talking with his parents and siblings about his Little League memories, and he has already started crafting his remarks.

"It's uncanny the way this fell together," Mr. Zaremski said. "This is unbelievable. It was meant to be."


Michael Sanserino: msanserino@post-gazette.com.

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