CEO Stories: The Anthem – Singing a Different Tune on Sports Management and Marketing
Joe Gilliland and Larry Lemons have parlayed their respective careers in content development and finance as well as their mutual love of golf into a shared vision for disrupting sports management and marketing with The Anthem.
By partnering with public relations, digital media, social media, and content-creation companies as well as a franchise and business development company, the two-year-old firm is focused on turning athletes into their own individual businesses, with Anthem acting as “CEO.”
By encouraging athletes to explore their talents and interests outside of sports, Anthem takes a 360-degree view of their clients that enables the company to align them with appropriate partners and expose them to broader audiences. For example, they’ve helped position NFL player and Men’s Fashion Week regular Brice Butler as a fashion icon, and have worked with PGA golfer Austin Cook to raise his profile among non-golf fans. A distinguishing factor of The Anthem’s approach is working with equity partners to create opportunities for athletes from the PGA, the NFL, and now the NBA that go beyond customary sponsorship deals.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE MOUNTAIN
In pointing out the difference between their firm and others, Gilliland and Lemons liken the journey they take with their clients as the difference between leading someone up a mountain vs. then helping guide them down the other side, to a comfortable landing. Given how short an athlete’s active career may be – for example, the average NFL career is only three years – Anthem is dedicated to creating long-term value for both athletes and their partners by fostering relationships rooted in common interests and values rather than short-term financial gain.
This Is Capitalism: Joe Gilliland, Larry Lemons
RH: This is Capitalism. I’m Ray Hoffman. They’ve only been business partners since January 2017. When they’re not on the road, usually in two different cities, their homes are about twelve hundred miles apart. And yet Joe Gilliland and Larry Lemons have a knack for finishing each other’s sentences. But then they share a vision of a somewhat disruptive, more comprehensive approach to sports management.
They call their company The Anth3m because they and their affiliated firms give voice and management to the longer-term, off-the-field and off-the-course interests of such rising stars as golfer Austin Cook and Oakland Raiders tight end Jared Cook. Too many cooks? Not in the case of Joe Gilliland, Larry Lemons and The Anth3m, which is based in Miami Beach.
And I found out just a second ago why you say you’re based in Miami Beach.
JG: Athletes love to visit the beach, they love to be in Miami, and so if we ever have a meeting or an event or something that we want to put together, it’s not too difficult to get them to come down there and visit with us.
RH: But basically you’re on the road with this business all the time.
LL: Absolutely. We visit our athletes all the time. Our partners are pretty much spread out all over the country. And that’s strategic so that we’re able to meet pretty much any athlete’s needs and/or get to that athlete at any given time.
RH: How often are you actually in the Miami Beach headquarters?
LL: I’m there probably I’d say every other month. [laughter]
RH: And you?
JG: As little as I can be. We have a couple of employees who are full time in Miami Beach, who work in the office headquarters, who are stationed there. Larry and I are primarily on the road, traveling, meeting with whoever it maybe that week.
RH: Where do you play most of your golf?
JG: I live in Dallas.
LL: I’m actually in Cleveland. Not as easy to get out as Dallas but I can’t help it man, the dogs are there, the family is there, I’m born and raised.
RH: Now there used to be an act in show business, a guy who balanced long rows of plates. He’d put them up on these thin sticks and then he’d turn them one after another, one after another, all the way, the whole length of the stage, and he had to keep them all spinning at once. Does that sound familiar in terms of your business?
JG: That’s every day. [laughter] That’s every day of our business. It’s always something new, it’s always something exciting. Part of why we put together this company is we believe there’s kind of been this mold that’s stuck inside this box within our industry and we are people who like to think outside of the box and find new and innovative ways to strategically align with our clients and their partners.
RH: Before I get to that, I’d like to know how the two of you came together? This is sort of the conjoining of two different companies, right? Who goes first on this?
LL: I guess that would be me.
LL: One of the more important parts of our business is the business development aspect and that’s something that I focus heavily on. I’ve been doing that for about six years with a couple athletes here and there and working through a financial company. And my main business partner was actually our first client.
And so in helping develop the model of Anth3m, I knew that it was important to find someone who had actual management experience. I didn’t necessarily care if they were in the management space but I needed someone who could bring traditional aspects of management that our guys wanted into a nontraditional situation. Two of our partners introduced me to Joe and we hit it off right away. I kind of laid out the vision for him and what we were looking to do and he just got it and we kind of ran with it and we’ve been going ever since.
RH: And your background is finance?
LL: Correct, correct. So I have an economics and finance background and I worked for JP Morgan Private for a number of years before branching off on my own.
RH: And your background is? Besides golf.
JG: [laughs] Well, ironically enough when I left college I actually started with UBS in a financial role as well and then moved into UBS Private wealth. But I think the week that I started with UBS I founded a digital media company with two of my best friends from college in the golf space that turned into something far bigger than any of us were anticipating it to turn into. I’ll try and give you the shortened version because I like to talk.
RH: Which means you’ll give me the longer version.
JG: I’m going to try not to, I’m going to try not to. I didn’t fully understand what I was stepping into but we created a YouTube video that turned into 30,000 views that turned into a second YouTube video that turned into 100,000 views, so on and so forth. My best friend started getting contracts in the mail saying, “hey we’d like to monetize your video, hey we’d like to help you build your platform,” stuff that none of us understood what it meant. But for some reason they called me and were like, “hey can you look over this?” And I was like, “sure.”
A couple phone calls later and some conversations, we ended up filing an LLC thinking hey, maybe we’ll make a little bit of money off of this at the end of the year and be able to pay off some rent and take some pretty girls out to dinner or something, ya know? And the next thing you know, Golf Digest has called and wanted to do a full series. And then Callaway Golf calls. And that kind of led me into a path that led me to full-time management, representation as well as business development for athletes and consulting on behalf of digital content marketing strategies.
RH: So each of you has been more than a little willing to take on risk in terms of building a business.
LL: Absolutely. And I mean obviously it’s mitigated risk at a time but you have to have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. And that was one of the things that drew me to Joe is he has built a business from the ground up and I have done it as well and you’ve kind to understand what that means to go into the trenches and build something that certain people may see as taboo or different. When you’re taking on an industry that has such set ways, you gotta have people beside you that really, really not only understand the vision but will understand the struggles that you’re gonna go through to get where you want to be. So we have absolutely, [laughs] absolutely been there.
RH: So tell me about the set ways of the management industry and what you’re doing to take them on.
JG: I tell people all the time the biggest difference today between if you look at Michael Jordan from when I was growing up, he was untouchable. You knew Michael Jordan as the guy who could beat anyone on the basketball court and a guy who modeled underwear and that was about it for Michael Jordan.
Whereas today, if you look at someone like LeBron James, LeBron James is fully accessible, fully, like you feel like you have a personal relationship with him day in and day out form everything that he’s been putting together. And I think social media, content creation, everybody says content is king and I think that’s very true.
And so the history of this business has been very focused on lets partner with athletes. And I, a lot of times…. I don’t want to accuse anyone out there of having negative or malintent because I don’t think that’s the case, I think this has just been the vision of the industry is “let’s find a way to sponsor guys and get them as much money as they can” but the reality is, is a lot of times we’re shooting for as little value as we provide, like how little can the athlete give to still receive as much as he wants from the company.
And I don’t think that’s a mold that works very well because at the end of the day the sponsorship doesn’t provide value to the company that you work with. And so the value comes a lot from…Now golf provides a very different platform because you can see the logos and you can interact with what the golfer is doing consistently but with other leagues, there’s limited site and space available to that athlete and so you have to find a way to create engagement opportunity for the brand.
And so instead of it being “hey we’re just associated with this player,” today it needs to be “hey there’s a story about our association with this play and we’re here to tell that.” And we’re going to tell that by way of digital content, social media strategy, public relations within the different industries that align with the player and the player’s story. And we’re going to find a way to go to an audience and not say “hey you need to watch this because we were paid to show it to you, but you want to watch this because it’s directly involved with who I am both on and off the field.”
LL: What you have to understand is specifically in other sports athletes have often been told if you’re not getting marketing deals, if you’re not getting situations like that that you’re just not marketable or you’re not in the right market. And that’s just not true today. Oftentimes they don’t know any different. And the people that are telling them this, again, it’s no malicious intent, they don’t know any better.
And so though we’re in an age where anyone can engage and tell their own story, the athletes don’t know that, they just know that they like Instagram. They just know that they like Twitter. They don’t really understand that they are forming what people see as them too.. and they’re putting it out there to the world.
And so what we’re doing is just making that intentional. We’re going out and saying, “okay, if this is the type of message that you’re going to put out, make sure that it’s you, make sure that you’re putting out what you stand for, who you are, and who you want to be.” And then we, on the back end, we take that and we align that message with brands that have the same type of message as them or, often times, companies that align with their values or things that they legitimately use.
And so we’re telling, we’re turning around and telling authentic stories and so the athletes don’t mind doing it and the brands get more out of it because the athlete wants to do it, they’re doing it anyway, they’re just getting paid for it. Or they’re creating a partnership that lasts longer than a quick $5,000 or $10,000 payment because it’s something that’s organic on both sides.
JG: Yeah. And I should probably clarify on that–we are not an agency. Like, we don’t handle contracts on the field for players, we don’t handle any team-related business. We will work with teams’ PR groups and things like that on occasion but a lot of times we are strategically aligned with agencies out there in order to help support in these other areas.
And what makes us uniquely different is the style of relationship that we have within the business development sector with each of these other companies. So we have an actual public relations company who is a partner in our company. We have a digital media and social media company who is a partner in our company. We have a content creation company who is a very, very strong company called Ideas United. They are one of the top in content right now who are the agency on record for a number of major organizations, who is a partner in our company.
And then the franchise and business development company, Apex, that we’re partnered with is probably the biggest differentiating factor from any other group out there because that’s not something that we’ve seen a lot of within this industry, which is kind of where a lot of our partnership deals come from–the equity side–and the ability for athletes to own their business instead of be paid for their platform, if that makes sense.
RH: Was that the original vision for the firm?
JG: Our goal was to help our athletes, our clients, develop what we call their own personal anthem. So a lot of times athletes get seen as hey he’s the football player, hey he’s the basketball player, hey he’s the golfer. And the reality is there’s a lot of athletes who are born with a talent that they want to utilize at this point but most people don’t know, the average NFL career is three years. That’s not a very long time. That’s a job, that’s not a career. And they have other passions, they have other interests, and they have other pursuits that they desire that come after their time on the field or on the court or the course. And that makes up who they are as a person.
And so a lot of our athletes that we work with in an exclusive manner come to us and the goal that we have put together in developing their personal anthem is when their time comes to an end, at the end of their career, not the end of their time with their sport, we hope that people will remember them and look at them and be like “didn’t he play a sport as well?”
There’s an old adage of more people die hiking down Mt. Everest than going up it. Our goal is not to get them to the top and be like “cool, see you later, congrats on reaching this point.” But once they reach that position of like “okay hey we’ve reached here, now we’re going to help guide you down into the phase as well.” It’s a full journey and we are not here to maximize the value in a short period of time, we’re here to long-term help; work together.
And I like to phrase it as the athlete is their own personal business. They are their own company, their own brand. And they hire us to be the CEO of their company. And that’s our job, that’s our goal is to step in and run their company for them so that when they retire from their sport they are ready to step into a role at their business. That’s kind of our vision there. So I think that’s what we were kind of working toward.
Now we had the vision, I don’t know that we always knew how to get to that vision and that has been a lot of what the process has been for us.
LL: I think we’ve had the vision, it’s just come a little faster than I think any of us really anticipated.
RH: And how old is the firm?
BOTH: Two years.
JG: Well, two years January, so almost there.
LL: I’ve been working with athletes now and have an extensive group of athletes that I’ve worked with for the past six years. He has the same, some of our partners. So though the firm and the vision itself is a newer concept, we’ve been working with athletes for a number of years. So we’ve been there.
JG: I’d say that one of our best clients that we’ve worked with is a guy named Brice Butler, who came in the seventh round of the NFL draft, has gone to a couple of different teams, and has proven that he is a very capable receiver and is doing well down in Miami right now. But what makes him fit our model is not what he is capable of doing on the field–he continues to have to grind and work incredibly hard to earn his success there– but who he is off the field.
I can take him into any meeting with anyone and know if I took one athlete into the meeting they’re going to sit there, they’re going to nod and smile and say “yeah that’s great,” and then they’re gonna walk out and they re gonna be like, “what did they say?” Whereas Brice is going to come in and he’s going to be there two hours longer than he is supposed to be and he’s going to have had a conversation with them. And he’s going to say “hey, I love this, how do I get more involved, how do I line this up with what I’m working on and what I’m passionate about?”. And it’s been cool to see.
One of his favorite things in the world is fashion. He goes to Men’s Fashion Week every year in Paris and he is very involved. But since getting involved in the past year he has gotten multiple companies that have reached out to him for campaigns as a fashion icon, he’s got multiple stories that have been placed by our public relations department within the fashion space and this year he went to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris and was voted as one of the top eight best-dressed athletes at the shows.
And so that’s huge to see the way that he is able to perform with someone who hasn’t hit that high level on the field as some other guys out there but is still a guy who is very capable of performing on the field as well as off of it.
RH: Is it easy for you to pivot from one sport to another?
JG: It’s interesting that you ask that. [Laughter.] I’d be interested to hear Larry’s answer. The reason I say that is because I was so heavily focused in golf and then when I met Larry, he was like hey I love the model that you have put together where you’re building brands and platforms for these guys away from their sport, let’s do it for the NFL.
And I would say I am just now two years in at a point where I’m like okay I’m fully integrated and ingrained into what the NFL is like. It’s a very different business. And I would imagine as we continue to learn more about the NBA space as we’re stepping into that, it’s going to be very similar where there’s just a lot of different ins and outs.
Once you get into the industry, you meet people very quick and become acclimated with the industry quickly but there’s so many differences between…especially with guys who play on a team and are employees of an organization vs. in golf, most people don’t realize, they’re contract employees of the tour. There is no employment organization, they are all independent businesses. So it’s been interesting to learn and navigate through that.
LL: For me, I’ve kind of just taken the dive into golf and wanted to learn on his back. But even though I was involved with NFL players, being directly involved in the NFL space as a whole, we’re learning together. So there’s little intricate things that we…tiny miniscule things that we miss here and there or have missed over the course of the last two years and we just…you put it in your mental Rolodex, we can’t do that again or this is how we do that better or they navigate you and they help you.
I think of the relationships, like you said. It’s kind of what helps you pick it up quicker. I’ve had a better learning curve than him because I’ve been in the NFL space, dealing with NFL players. I think we’re going to go through this now as we transition to bringing on NBA athletes, I’m sure it’s going to be different than what he’s used to and than what I’m used to. One tends to be a little easier than others and one tends to be way more protective than others. They are employees and so….
But yeah, it’s been interesting to watch his transition not even understanding. I thought we were going to go and move through this together and I didn’t understand how much of a learning curve I had until he tried to do it.
RH: Oh yeah.
LL: And he’s learned it and he’s picked it up great but I didn’t realize how far along I was until he had to jump in. And it’s just all those little things that you understand from NFL calendar to when guys go back to work to having Tuesdays or Thursdays off. And that’s when you reach them during the season.
JG: That’s the biggest difference, man. If I call a golfer, that golfer is going to pick up the phone. He’s going to answer the phone, he’s going to talk to me for as long as I need to talk. Austin Cook especially is the best about it. He’s been one of my close friends throughout the entirety of my career and if I call him he’s going to pick up the phone. He’s probably going be annoyed with me sometimes that I call him four times a day for things that are going on but he’s going to pick up the phone every time.
If I call an NFL player four times in a day, that’s cause for them not to answer for a month, you know? So it’s different. And there are guys who are anomalies and things like that but understanding like the difference in schedule, the difference in requirements of being an employee vs. a contract entity is…There’s a lot of intricacies, even with the personalities of the players in the different leagues, has been unique.
RH: Recently I stumbled on some video from the early sixties, Palmer, Nicholas, and Player, doing a primetime appearance on the Perry Como show. You know, Mark McCormack’s big three, right? [laughter] So he had them booked as featured guests and they play essentially an edited round at the Sands Point Club and this was a high-profile, highly rated TV variety show. So I’m assuming if somewhere there is a statue of Mark McCormack, the first superstar sports agent, you’d be bowing down in front of it.
JG: Oh, a hundred percent. I firmly believe that Arnold Palmer made sports marketing cool and I think that Mark McCormack was revolutionary in that with everything that he was able to do with his firm and what he put together. He wrote an incredible book that is a book that I tried to read once a year, What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School. I love it, I think it’s phenomenal. And I’m a big fan.
And so there is so much that you can learn and look at and see, man, what they were able to kinda contrive early on has created what is probably the model for what hopefully all us are trying to do now within this industry.
RH: So the lessons that he learned in 1961 and ’62 and ’63 are still applicable?
JG: Oh, a hundred percent.
JG: Going back to what I was saying about Arnold Palmer, if you look at the impact that his life had on the sport of golf before there was a Tiger Woods, before…. He, Jack, and Gary of course played a huge impact.
But one of the things that I think I was most intrigued by is I remember when Arnold passed away I was intrigued, you know, the umbrella and the brand that came with him. What most people don’t realize is when Arnold was playing, I don’t know what the exact number is, but he was winning a thousand dollars or something like that in golf tournaments. Sure it was higher for wins and things like that but there was some statistic on it, it was a very low number versus today, you’re playing for 1.2 million for the winner.
And it was unique to me how a guy who could play in a time when the earnings were astronomically less could have a net worth of hundreds of millions of dollars at the end of his life, right? And it’s because Arnold was a story and he was a phenomenal storyteller. And I think the storytelling ability had a lot to do with what Mark McCormack was able to do. And so if we have the ability to even just scratch the surface of that with our guys, especially in different industries, we’ll be doing something right.
LL: I think that’s how we scratch the surface is understanding the important parts of an athlete’s business off the field and how to build that and then turn that into something when they step off the field that they have their hopes, their dreams and everything in front of them to move forward to as opposed to us being an entity that you can only utilize while you’re on the field. And I think that’s how we continue to scratch the surface on something special.
RH: And considering the incredible growth of e-sports. [Laughter.] The Barclay Center over here in Brooklyn was sold out a couple of straight days for people watching other people play video games.
RH: Have you ever thought about taking on gamers as clients?
LL: We’ve had the conversation.
JG: We’ve had this conversation many times.
LL: We’ve actually had this conversation since the inception of Anth3m.
LL: So it is something we’re looking into. We are actively looking to expand who we bring on and test our model even more. The great thing about our strategic partners is we have aligned partners that understand sports but don’t have active backgrounds in sports. And that was done on purpose. It was because we didn’t want any of our influencers, and I consider athletes influencers, we don’t want any of our influencers put into a box of what their sport tells them they should be getting into. We really want our athletes to have an open mind and to be comfortable telling us anything you have an interest in that we can help you with.
And so there are a number of things that we have on the table that we’re looking forward to testing our model out. E-gaming just happens to be one of them.
JG: I don’t think that I will necessarily be directly involved because video game are not my model. But I think with this continued growth and the incredible opportunity there I think it makes sense. I’ve got a couple of friends who are heavily involved in the space and are actually…have moved out of representation of athletes into representation of e-gamers full time.
RH: What would each of you like to change about the agency and representation industry?
LL: Ooh. [Laughs.]
JG: That’s a tough question. Yeah.
RH: That’s why I saved it till the end.
JG: Well here’s what I’ll say. This is what I think the driving force of the success of Anth3m is going to be and this is what I’d like to see more of for athletes. Obviously, for many years there’s been an issue with so many professional athletes who have struggled financially after their career. I hope that with what we’re doing at Anth3m that it will create opportunities for athletes to invest more into their future after their sport, into their careers, into building their businesses.
And one of the ways that we try to inspire that opportunity is through our relationship with a company called Apex in our business development work. So part of the reason that we’re in New York this week is one of our clients, Jared Cook, from the Oakland Raiders, is a partner in a high fashion men’s apparel line. And that came about because Jared is 6-foot-7, 250 pounds, is that right? And has always been into fashion and has never fit into fashion.
And so he came up with the idea of “hey I want to start my own line that hits the everyman from casual all the way up to business professional.” And Jared put in some time and effort and some capital into making that a reality. Larry helped put together the right team, the right strategy designers, the right partner took over as CEO of the company and has now developed it to where it’s in, what, 20 boutiques in New York, 400 worldwide.
LL: I think in all honesty, I believe that what needs to change is the idea that agencies or financial advisors or managers or whoever the case may be have direct control over an athlete. I tell everybody coming out of college that’s looking into agents, management, looking into financial advisors, I tell them each one plays their own special and specific role in your business and each one of them has their importance but none of them should be directly connected. Meaning that you should hire specific people to do specific jobs for you.
I think that we get in trouble as managers, as agents, as financial advisors, when we promise things to athletes that we aren’t experts in. You shouldn’t have your financial advisor giving you legal advice or social media and marketing advice. You shouldn’t have your management team telling you directly where your money should be invested in stocks and bonds. Like, everybody should do their own specific job and rely on partners or people that they trust around them to do those other, segmented parts.
Oftentimes right now we’re getting caught because agents are telling people or are trying to do additional jobs that they don’t necessarily do, whereas to me the agent’s job is to keep you employed. The financial advisor’s job is to make sure that you don’t go broke. More than that but… [Laughs.]
JG: That you have a financial plan in place to instill success long-term.
LL: Correct. And so our job is to help you build this platform that you can monetize and gain additional…your lawyer is there for legal advice, your accountant is there for tax advice. And the athlete should build its business in a segmented way but all of those parts should work collectively together. And that just doesn’t happen enough. I think that’s what I feel like should change–that we all, the segmented parts of this athlete’s business should work more for the overall success of the athletes.
And so we’ve got great partners on the agency side, on the financial advising side. And I think that the more that that happens, the better off these athletes will be long term.
RH: And what you have helped Jared Cook accomplish can be repeated over and over and over again.
JG: That’s the hope.
JG: That’s why we developed our relationship with Apex. One of the best parts about that is what they go out and do is they go out and they find concepts that are in the early stages of success and help build them into much larger concepts that can reach high levels of growth. We’re talking with a company right now that’s got this incredible indoor play concept. It’s phenomenal.
And we’re talking with them about how do we essentially bring in a unique ambassador specific to the business, and develop a relationship with that group that is going to afford the individual an equitable piece, whether it be within the local market of an individual franchise or on a national scale where they’re going to have an equitable piece, where they’re going to have ownership for use of helping to grow this.
And they’ll come in and they’ll do appearances and they’ll come in and have “hey let’s come play with this individual on this night or let’s get together…let’s do”…whether they come in and pay for everybody to come and do that day or something like that kind of promotional value that’s going to draw people to come and want to come more than just because it’s already there. It’s an incredible concept that doesn’t need that but it only helps support the growth strategy into more and more markets.
JG: And so opportunities like that to grow that with athletes only provides them more opportunity to grow their business long term.
RH: I’m thinking what you really need is a broadcaster to do that and not an athlete. [laughter] I’m thinking of one person in particular.
LL: Yeah we’re happy to take on any influencers. The platform fits, you know?
JG: Yeah it’s a new model.
LL: To kind of expand just a little bit on what he said. Jared is a unique individual and that’s what we’re looking for. Jared is not the type of person…He is very, very charismatic but he is very particular about the types of companies he partners with, the types of causes that he wants to be involved with. But Jared’s anthem and his legacy will be left in the businesses that he has partnered with and the causes in which he has given back to and also the businesses that he has built. That’s the anthem that he wanted for himself. So to answer your question, yes, we can help all athletes build their anthem and that’s going to be unique to each individual athlete.
JG: I think it would be great if we were the first sports management group or marketing group to step in and own a franchise of some kind. That maybe an Ultimate Frisbee franchise, I don’t know, but I think it would be awesome if we could reach that kind of level where our management group is not solely focused on athletic clients but can branch into all of sport and entertainment as a whole
LL: We are excited and we’re happy that people are starting to take notice and people are starting to ask questions, large agencies are starting to ask questions about how we are doing what we do. So that’s the dream. I think we’re getting there, we’re starting to get to the point where we are changing how people look at what they expect out of sports management or management in general.
RH: Larry Lemons, the last voice you heard, and Joe Gilliland of The Anth3m.
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