After a group led by former NBA players Junior Bridgeman and Grant Hill dropped out of the running to buy the Atlanta Hawks in 2015, investment fund manager Antony Ressler led a consortium of investors and purchased the team two weeks later. Hill managed to join Ressler’s group, as did Spanx founder Sarah Blakely, her husband Jesse Itzler, and two others. The share of the Hawks each person owns is unknown although it’s safe to assume that Ressler and Blakely fronted most of the cash, since they are billionaires while Hill and Itzler are not.
Itzler is the least famous of the four lead investors, and he’s popped up a few times this year, first on Lance Armstrong’s thinkfluencer-focused “The Forward” podcast on March 5, and yesterday afternoon, when Darren Rovell glowingly tweeted a self-congratulatory Instagram post (“MUST READ”) of Itzler’s that documented his experience supposedly paying $320,000 for Yankees season tickets in order to show potential business partners a good time.
Here’s the full text of Itzler’s post:
BUSINESS FLASHBACK WEEK. 1997. My partner and I have a meeting at the NY Yankees to pitch them on a Yankee CD and team song. Derek Schiller the marketing director pulls us aside after the meeting and says “We have 4 season tickets in the front row that you HAVE to buy”. I ask “how much”? He says $320,000 for the season. WHAT??? At that time our company had no money in the bank. My salary was $37,500. It would bankrupt us. He said “You don’t understand. Your business will quadruple. You’ll entertain. You’ll meet people. You’ll have life memories. And one day you will give these tickets to your kids”. We left without buying them. When we got back to the office I called the Yankees and said “We’ll take them”. I couldn’t pass it up. We borrowed the money. We had those seats for 10 years or so. We went to every game, gave them to customers (and potential customers). We sold 3 companies during that time. All 3 buyers sat in those seats with us prior to buying us.
FAST FORWARD. 2017. Our job at the @atlhawks is to give our season ticket holders that same experience. Life memories. There are thousands of restaurants, movie theaters and bars in town, but only one NBA team. Our job is to make each night at Phillips Arena special. #GetYourFootInTheDoorAndSortItOutLater #StoriesFromAnEntrepreneur#TheEntertainer #CantLearnItAtHarvard#EdandJov
What Itzler is describing here is essentially a pyramid scheme, or an extremely dubious business maneuver that absolutely nobody should try repeating. While I’m sure potential business partners were impressed with Legend’s Club seats, going into debt up to your eyeballs to have a snazzier place to talk is insane. It would be like mortgaging your house and selling your car in order to buy pocket squares.
As business advice goes, #GetYourFootInTheDoorAndSortItOutLater is almost exactly the same nonsensical logic that made the Fyre Fest disaster resonate as a punchline. And, since Itzler is a part owner of the Hawks, he has a financial stake in pushing the myth that season tickets gives you unfettered access to high rollers (a myth which could theoretically boost the Hawks’ anemic attendance numbers).
Itzler later clarified that the seats he bought were in the third-base Legends Suite. For him to pay $320,000 for four season tickets, he would have needed to pay $80,000 each, or $987 per game. According to the Yankees’ website, the most expensive Legends Suite tickets would run you $850 per game right now, in 2017. Archived versions of the Yankees website only extend back to 1999, but nobody was paying nearly $320K for four season tickets. Either he got duped by marketing exec Derek Schiller (who has yet to reply to a request for comment), or this business success story is a bit fishy.
Rovell called Itzler a serial entrepreneur, which is true but incomplete. He began his career as a rapper, scoring a minor hit with 1991's “Shake It Like A White Girl.” Itzler is more chiefly notable for selling himself as a hybrid rapper/businessman, who created themed songs for a handful of NBA franchises and even the league itself. As he told Business Insider, “When I was 24 I realized I could never be one of the best rappers but I knew I had some of the best ideas.”
Since then, Itzler’s always been working on something. He founded a record label in 1996, made more songs about teams and leagues, and sold it two years later for $4.5 million, maybe even at one of those Yankee’s games. Itzler helped found Marquis Jet, a company that rented out private jets to rich people, which Warren Buffet bought in 2010. He started a brand incubator (of course) and got a chunk of Zico Beverages, the maker of Zico Coconut Water. Coca-Cola bought Zico in 2013.
Not all of his ideas were hits, but Itzler seems like someone who never stopped trying shit. Take Vowch, a now-dead social curation app:
At its core, Vowch is a social recommendation platform. With Vowch, you can easily get a snapshot of who someone is based on what they vouch for. Users can vouch for things like movies, TV shows, musicians, hotels, conferences — you name it.
The more you Vowch, the better your chances are for becoming a true “boss.” “Bosses”on Vowch have the most street cred in the app. There are fashion bosses, reading bosses, music bosses, and so on.
Success stories similar to Itzler’s abound in Silicon Valley, where the founders of many huge companies did insane things to get there. But that’s also sort of the point. You listen to successful people recall the crazy decision they made in the early days wistfully, while you rarely hear from the 999 other entrepreneurs whose budding companies failed because they spent $320,000—before they had revenue or a single client—attempting to wine and dine.
Itzler and Blakely are an entrepreneurial success story, a self-made couple who now own part of an NBA team. Itzler is free to gloat all he wants, and it’s not surprising that somebody like Darren Rovell would get suckered in by this self-mythologizing. But if a huckster tries telling you your new business needs to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars on their product, immediately run in the opposite direction.