Like many kids growing up in Flatbush in the early 1970s, Brandon Steiner sat in the nosebleeds at Shea and Yankee stadiums. But unlike most kids from Flatbush, Steiner was able to channel his passion for sports and start a successful business that would take him not only to seats behind home plate, but into the locker rooms and the front offices as well.
Steiner didn’t start his career in the sports industry. He left Syracuse University with an accounting degree in one hand and a ticket to Baltimore in the other. He went to work for Hyatt hotels and was part of the team that opened the Hyatt Inner Harbor in Baltimore, one of the company’s most successful hotels. In 1984, the self-proclaimed “kitchen and restaurant” guy moved back to New York and opened and managed operations at the Hard Rock Café in New York. While running the Hard Rock was a huge opportunity, Steiner grew restless. Not only was he in no position to implement his ideas for improving the iconic theme restaurant, but he was tired of working nights in an establishment with no televisions. He was missing all the games! “I was a real sports lunatic, loved playing, watching,” says Steiner. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to do a Hard Rock, but in sports’?”
In 1985 Bobby Valentine’s in Stamford, Conn., and the Ultimate Sports Bar in Chicago were among the few successful sports bars, so Steiner and some investors decided to open the Sporting Club, which had since become a Tribeca institution (until it closed a couple of years ago). As the success of the Sporting Club grew, so did Steiner’s reputation, and dozens of athletes called him to help them open their own sports bars. He was a consultant on opening bars for Mickey Mantle, Ron Darling and Lawrence Taylor. It was while he was organizing publicity events with big-name athletes that he recognized the need for a sports marketing service — pairing up athletes with businesses that needed to draw customers. In 1987, he filled that need by opening an athlete marketing firm, Steiner Sports. He then eclipsed his marketing success by expanding into the sports collectibles market in 1987. Thirteen years later, he sold Steiner Sports to media giant Omnicom, but Steiner didn’t just pack it in and hit the links. Today he is the company’s chairman and has orchestrated exclusive collectible deals with the New York Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Syracuse University and Notre Dame. The entrepreneur struck gold again in 2001 when he opened Last Licks, a sports-bar-themed ice cream shop. Complete with athlete signing events and sports memorabilia on display, Last Licks grew to five locations and will soon become a franchise.
NY REPORT editor-in-chief Robert Levin sat down with Steiner to find out how he marketed without advertising, charmed the Steinbrenner boys and plans to beat Michael Jordan in a game of hoops.
RL: The Sporting Club bridged your experience in the restaurant industry and your love of sports. Tell me how you got started.
BS: At 26 years old, I was probably a little over my head. I looked at myself as an extremely young, talented guy who was inexperienced. We’ve seen a lot of inexperienced, talented people sometimes do some incredible things and yet at the same time fall short. That’d probably be the best explanation — I was onto something incredibly genius at the time and didn’t even know it. We were creating this really serious sports theme, with multiple TVs and all the different promotions ran at all these different events. In New York, cable wasn’t quite there yet. We had a satellite dish, and I leveraged this so people were lining up to get into a place that, literally, was in the middle of nowhere.
RL: Back in the ’80s, Tribeca was nowhere.
BS: You couldn’t give away the apartments back in 1985. And that really was my coming-out party — to take a place of that size and put it on the map myself operationally, menu-wise, just the whole thing. I knew I had the ability to get people interested. Through opening up the Sporting Club, I opened up about 10 or 12 other sports bars with many different athletes.
Believe it or not, I couldn’t raise more than $250,000 at that time to open up my own place [without my Sporting Club partners]. So I was consulting on a lot of other sports bars and restaurants and helping people like Lawrence Taylor, Ron Darling and a bunch of other celebrities open up their sports bars, including Mickey Mantle’s.
RL: How did the sports bar business evolve into a vision of creating a sports marketing business?
Robert Levin is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The New York Enterprise Report. Levin has extensive experience with midsize and small businesses, having previously held CEO, CFO, and COO positions with companies in several industries. He is also a contributor for The Huffington Post. Levin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (212) 307-6760.