PITTSBURGH – Last season, Antonio Brown glared into every camera he saw to declare "Business is Boomin’," a playful nod to an ascending career and a flashy lifestyle of which DJ Khaled approves.
Brown is in the process of trademarking the phrase, a source close to Brown says, but he’s no longer saying it. His tone says something else about his approach to 2017.
Business is serious.
“Since day one, everything I do is business savvy,” Brown told ESPN, without his usual ear-to-ear smile. “I’m a walking-around business. I’m not just an athlete or a football player. I’m a walking-around business. I have to conduct myself in such a way.”
Antonio Brown, appearing for Chunky MAXX Soup, served as part-time coach at Thomas Jefferson (Pa.) HS this week for the soup's 'We fill in, you fill up' campaign. The head coach got a soup break while Brown gave a pep talk and taught routes. Campbell's Soup is 'a brand I grew up with,' Brown said.
That applies to shaking cornerbacks, endorsing products, even social media choices. Brown is 29 years old and fresh off a $68 million contract extension. He has been in the NFL’s top 10 in jersey sales.
He has endorsement deals with AT&T/DirecTV, Campbell’s Soup, Pepsi, Nike, NFL Sunday Ticket, NRG Energy, Sprayground backpacks and Proctor & Gamble Rite Aid, according to a Brown source. He also has marketed for Skittles, Visa and Oral-B.
Brown has relentlessly pursued these opportunities, earning the nickname "Always Boomin'" (A.B.) from some people in his business circle. An NFL-record fifth consecutive 100-catch season and a Steelers’ Super Bowl push would boost an already growing portfolio.
Sports lawyer and Forbes business consultant Darren Heitner said Brown has surpassed Ben Roethlisberger as the most marketable Steeler and competes with Odell Beckham Jr. for top receiver endorser, though Beckham probably still has a slight edge.
“In the NFL, you have to be the cream of the crop at your position to even get those endorsements, and then what separates you is personality,” Heitner said. “He’s got a big personality, he does great end zone celebrations, and he doesn’t get in trouble off the field.”
A glimpse into Brown’s approach to branding shows an athlete who doesn’t take any plays -- or Snapchat videos -- off.
To the Maxx
It’s Tuesday night, the Steelers are off, and Antonio Brown is working on his routes. Well, he’s teaching them, to a player named Keith at Thomas Jefferson High School.
Brown often spends his off days promoting brands. Today, it’s Campbell's Chunky Maxx soup, as part of the "We’ll Fill in, While you Fill Up." The coach ate soup from the bleachers while Brown coached for the better part of an hour.
The black Rolls-Royce pulled up at around 4:30 p.m. and stayed until close to 7. When he wasn’t calling plays, he was Snapchatting with players. Or, a chance to “know me outside of the helmet,” says Brown, who doesn't give off a vibe as much as impose it.
“This is a brand that I grew up watching, and now I get a chance to be the guy now,” Brown said. “I don’t take that for granted.”
Brown estimates Chunky Maxx is one of four or five commercials he has shot in the past four months. The goal is to associate with brands he likes, Brown said.
But he’s savoring this commercial experience because it involves children. Whether at local appearances or his own summer football camp, Brown hovers over each kid with daps and hugs.
Mark Tumelty, marketing director for soup and broth activation at Campbell Soup Co., said Brown embodies the qualities and character important to the Chunky brand: passionate about family, community contributor, hard work.
Brown has a different scouting report for why he’s marketable.
“My back is real big. My traps are way up there. My calves are like mean mangos. I’ve got some cute kids," said Brown, before laughing. “Nah, I just think I’m grateful. I’ve got a good personality, clean face and a pure heart.”
On a moving train
Brown has been known to keep a revolving door of characters on Team AB. There was @Bothetrainer, who was stretching out Brown before each training camp practice, until he wasn’t. The two fell out on social media after the trainer wrote that Brown was bad for business.
There was Niko the chef, a fixture of Brown’s social media videos, until he wasn’t.
At least one of Brown's former youth coaches in Miami was with him in training camp.
Brown admits his team, which he wants to keep private, is a small one, in part because only so many people can keep up.
“I make a lot of money, and I’m in a successful position, so people on the team can sometimes get caught up in the moment and not work in regards to doing the job,” Brown said. “Me being the CEO, it’s my job to recognize those things.”
Brown wouldn’t say he has learned that the hard way, but adds, in the past, he has been too trusting.
LeBron James has built an empire with the help from childhood friends. Brown isn't trying to mirror James' approach, but he sees value in a well-oiled team that's eyeing the same goal. Brown has been with his Miami-based marketing team and agent Drew Rosenhaus for years.
“You’ve got to invest in yourself on the field,” Brown said. “A lot of people aren’t consistent or can’t last. It’s hard being in this position and finding people who will be as motivated as me. When you make a lot of money and are popular, people try to slip in the cracks or get by and try to take advantage. They usually don’t last around me. Everyone on my team, we have to make it a good environment.”
A catalyst for Brown’s appeal is his accessibility, which he took too far on a Facebook Live feed that revealed team secrets in the Kansas City locker room after a playoff win last season.
That miscue drew Mike Tomlin’s ire but didn’t stop the Steelers from giving Brown the massive extension.
Brown believes he has learned from that experience, knowing he must "protect your team’s privacy, protect the team’s identity and do what’s right," he said.
But the moment was emblematic of Brown as a live-out-loud marketer. Want me to market Oral-B? OK, I’ll post videos of me at the dentist or flossing in my bathroom.
Often, companies feel athletes don’t give them enough, Heitner says, whereas “someone who’s connected with fans daily can really help” as long as the message doesn't get lost in the volume.
Now, Brown is officially trying to invade your smartphone. The launch of "84/7," a docuseries in partnership with the media company Vaunt, chronicles Brown’s offseason, growing up in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, training with Terrell Owens and other topics.
Yes, this feeds the Brown brand, but the receiver says this is “for motivational purposes only,” which he insists is the thrust of his off-field endeavors.
“At the end of the day, all we’ve got is our moments and memories," Brown said. "It’s about creating those moments and memories, something I can look back on and give other people motivation, seeing how I go about my life.”
Off the field, Brown is engaging, but he can also be capricious, occasionally tardy. Talk to him about affecting kids and he perks up. He's right on time with that theme, noting his business plan makes money but, hopefully, reaches kids who struggled with identity like he once did.
"I know what it’s like being a fatherless kid, a kid who was grown up in different situations," said Brown, who bounced around homes while his father, Eddie, was absent but is now around. "Those things are important to me. I always try to give out to the community and give back. I know how important that is to have role models. Inspire others to be their best."