Tiki Barber's Thuzio raises $1.5 million to pimp out pro athletes

By Erin Griffith , written on January 17, 2013

From The News Desk

Thuzio is the project of former NFL runningback Tiki Barber and Mark Gerson of Gerson Lehrman Group. On it, sports fans can hire professional athletes to hang out with them. It's is exactly what any rich 13-year-old boy, or Jim Halpert, dreams of. It's also a commonly used tactic for spicing up a dry corporate event. From my experience, keynote speeches by quarterback-turned private equity baron Steve Young were the highlight of many a Buyouts conference.

The idea is for Thuzio to bring transparency to the whole "celebrity appearance" market with its clear pricing. Many a startup launches on the premise of bringing transparency to an opaque market -- look at what Expedia/Hotwire/Orbitz/Priceline did for airline prices. Or what Zillow and Trulia are doing for real estate prices. Or what Castlight Health and ClearHealthCosts are doing for healthcare prices. Or what Catercow is doing for catering prices. Or what Speakerfile is doing for conference speakers. Or even what Amazon, showrooming be damned, has done for comparison shopping.

Then again, transparency for celebrity appearances may not be such a good thing. Judging by the prices on Thuzio, athletes are the cheapest dates as far as this market goes -- most appearances listed cost $5000 or less. Even Jersey Shore cast members and Vanilla Ice can pull $10,000 for face time. That brutal transparency means Kerri Shrug is never going to get to charge more than $2,250 for that corporate golf outing appearance, because anyone hiring her will know that's her going rate. Barber in particular is priced to sell -- for just $500, you can have lunch with the man.

Still, the company has gotten the enough demand to populate a fairly robust selection of 300 athletes, and it won the attention of investors in the process. Thuzio raised $1.5 million in venture backing in a round with room to go up to $2.5 million from RSE Ventures.

RSE, a venture capital firm focused on sports and entertainment, was launched last year by Matt Higgins, a former EVP of the New York Jets and Stephen M. Ross, owner of the Miami Dolphins, real estate mogul, and Forbes billionaire (#83). In addition to Thuzio, the firm has invested in Poptip, an NYC Techstars alum, as well as TagSeats, a social media platform for events, and WillCall, a last minute event ticking app. Areas of interest for RSE include audience engagement, combining in-venue content, curated events, and strategic partnerships.

Though it is clearly rooted in sports, Thuzio plans to expand to include performing and visual arts, literature, lifestyle, and business talent.