Sunday's Super Bowl made New Orleans the center of the media universe, but few people realize — or remember — that New Orleans' big day almost never happened.
"Ironically, if it weren't for Katrina, (the Saints) would have pretty much definitely left and went to San Antonio," said Frank Vuono, of Rutherford-based sports marketing firm 16W Marketing LLC.
Vuono and his partner, Steven B. Rosner, have made a name for themselves as a go-to firm for teams and players looking to turn potential into revenue. When Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast in 2005, league officials turned to 16W to help the team raise the revenue to rebuild and stay put.
"I was passing through the airport in LaGuardia and there was a magazine cover of one of the news magazines and it said, 'The U.S. has never lost a city. Will New Orleans be the first?' And that was the real challenge," Vuono said.
With the big game coming to the region next year, there's no discussion of a lost city — but there is concern that New Jersey will be lost as the league, media and major sponsors play to the bright lights of New York. Companies like 16W are working to ensure New Jersey gets the most of its opportunity.
"I've tried to warn some people not to overreact — but you know, it's the world's largest party happening in the epicenter of business and everything else, so the opportunities abound," said Vuono, a board member at the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Jim Kirkos, the chamber's president and CEO, said Vuono and 16W have helped his members realize the opportunities, and limitations, of the event.
"We didn't want to run in an area that wasn't going to be meaningful to us and wasn't going to be fruitful," Kirkos said. "That's the last thing we can afford here, so we wanted to create a priority list that was realistic."
Vuono's face is a familiar one to NFL officials. He worked for the league's licensing office for eight years before founding Integrated Sports International in 1993 with Rosner, who had previously run his own sports management and marketing company.
ISI grew to 70 employees and more than 100 clients before it was sold to SFX Entertainment in 1999. Vuono and Rosner joined SFX, but left the following year, when SFX was sold to Clear Channel Entertainment. When they formed 16W in October 2000, it was not to repeat the rapid growth of ISI, but instead to foster a new niche — small, but powerful.
Rosner, who leads 16W's talent representation division, focused on sports broadcasters, mostly big-name former NFL players like CBS' Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason, Fox's Howie Long, and NBC's Cris Collinsworth, along with Major League Baseball ironman-turned-broadcaster Cal Ripken Jr.
"On most pregame shows, there's only four or five seats," Rosner said. "Our guys have one of them. In game broadcasts, there are only four networks that are NFL rights-holders — we have the two lead guys in Collinsworth and Simms."
Simms said when he switched representation to 16W more than a decade ago, he was swayed in part by their direct, decisive style of representation. But he said the business relationship has also been paired with a personal relationship, as the two principals and most of their clients are all of similar ages.
"What's always good in these relationships is they know you personally," he said. "We're all friends. We go to dinner a lot with each other's families. You can be honest with each other."
Vuono, who runs 16W's corporate division, has worked with a long list of NFL teams, and the league itself, to find revenue opportunities like stadium and entrance naming rights.
The firm's connections have also proved valuable to brands looking to align themselves with the NFL.
Scott Dickey, CEO of Competitor Group, a California-based sports media and event firm, said 16W has helped expand its NFL Run Series, a set of road races hosted by NFL teams with finish lines at the team's home stadium. This year, 12 or 13 teams will host the runs, up from just four in 2012.
Dickey said his challenge was getting the teams' attention for what would be more of a community outreach event than a major moneymaker.
"We certainly were gaining traction, but never at the speed with which an organization like 16W could accelerate it," he said.
Now, it's New Jersey companies hoping 16W can help find the accelerator. Kirkos said there are still plenty of opportunities for New Jersey, even if many people think of the event as a "New York" Super Bowl.
"We have home-field advantage," he said. Vuono said he, too, worries about New York's shadow, but remains optimistic.
"Steve and I, right up at the top of anything that we're about, we're very proud New Jersey guys — and thus, the name of our company and everything else," he said. "I can tell you that, bottom line, I think New Jersey will get more than its fair share of the parties and the events."
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