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Volume 23 No. 28
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Deshaun Watson making the right reads

Watson is a two-time Pro Bowler with the Texans.
Photo: getty images

When the NFL season opens Thursday in Kansas City, reigning Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes will deservedly be garnering the limelight. Still, Mahomes’ opposite number that night will forever be inexorably tied to the KC QB. Houston quarterback Deshaun Watson, a fellow Pro Bowl selection, was chosen at No. 12 in the 2017 draft, just two spots after Mahomes. Consequently, Mahomes’ new 10-year contract — worth a reported $450 million-$500 million — is influencing what Watson (and every NFL signal-caller) is seeking as he nears the end of his five-year rookie contract.

 

Watson’s 1-2 playoff record, which includes a 20-point loss in Kansas City during last season’s playoffs, can’t yet compare to Mahomes’ 4-1 mark, which he capped with a 31-20 win over San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV. Still, Watson is close to Mahomes’ performance on the field — a 67.3 completion percentage and 26 touchdowns a year ago compared to a 65.9 completion percentage and 26 TDs for Mahomes, the league’s 2018 MVP — and he is expected to sign a lucrative extension before year’s end.

He’s also closing the gap off the field with the help of Athletes First, where partner and NFL agent David Mulugheta has repped Watson for on-field matters since he entered the league. Around a year ago, Athletes First expanded its marketing practice by bringing in Bryan Burney, who had represented Watson for marketing while working at Excel from 2017-19.  

There’s an ongoing debate across the business concerning whether marketing deals and playing contracts should be handled separately or under the same roof.

“We’re always going to make sure football comes first, of course,” said Mulugheta, who manages Watson’s playing contract. “But when you have football and marketing under the same roof, we feel like there’s always going to be a better alignment with the athlete.”

Burney was able to convince Watson of just that, based on a strategy of landing some equity deals with companies Watson could grow with, along with some larger deals that would provide national exposure and a sizable paycheck. Watson has already shot a national TV ad for Amazon Web Services, the standing and frequency of which will be familiar to any NFL watchers because it’s the same “Next Gen Stats” ad that featured Mahomes last year and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson the year prior. An ad for a new Samsung Galaxy smartphone is next.

As for nontraditional opportunities, Watson has been doing some social media work promoting 2020 UEFA champion Bayern Munich, a club he had visited back in 2018, that Burney hopes to grow into something larger. He’s also become an “ambassador” for the Miami Design District, “because of where it takes him and the people he meets there,” said Burney.  

On the equity side, another new deal sees Watson receiving equity and royalties and becoming a franchisee in Lefty’s Famous Cheesesteaks Hoagies & Grill. It’s largely a Michigan chain for now, but it has plans to more than triple its locations by the end of next year, including many planned for Texas. Locally, Watson’s been a spokesman for grocer HEB and Texans home stadium naming-rights holder Reliant Energy.  

“David and I have seen what LeBron [James] has done and so we are looking to grow with some companies, since the right endorser can grow a brand so quickly,” said Burney.  Other equity deals include hookups with Zurvita, a multilevel marketing company selling nutritional supplements, and Rally Rd., which securitizes high-value assets, like collectible watches, art and cars, and converts them into equity investments.  

Deals with recent renewals include those with Beats and a memorabilia exclusive Gary Takahashi’s GT Sports Marketing, which was extended for three years.  

Unrenewed, as of yet, is a deal with Verizon, which could complement the Samsung endorsement, and Burney is also looking for brands in the auto and financial services categories.  

The nascent production company game1 is already shooting a Watson documentary, sort of a “Hard Knocks” for an individual athlete. Meanwhile, the 24-year-old’s first book, “Pass It On: Work Hard, Serve Others … Repeat” is due in bookstores this month. It’s filled with life lessons from Watson, whose family unexpectedly received a house from the “Homes for the Holidays” charity of former Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn when Watson was 11. 

The trading-card business, in which Watson has an endorsement deal with Panini, is white-hot, especially the secondary market. EBay last week had more than 20 Watson rookie cards available for over $1,000 each. The priciest listing sought $149,999.99 for an autographed card, plus $3.35 postage. For now, Mahomes has an edge there as well, with nine of his rookie cards listed at $90,000 and up, while one asked for a minimum bid of $192,500.

“Other than talent, Deshaun has that ‘it’ factor. People love to play with him, because he has that quiet, determined demeanor, whatever the score,” said Mulugheta. “Don’t get me wrong, so does Mahomes. But Deshaun’s writing his own story and there’s going to be some trophies in there too.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.